Is Microsoft Still Committed to Pocket PC?

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Over the years, Microsoft has put a tremendous amount of time and money into developing its Pocket PC operating system. However, recently there have been signs that perhaps Microsoft’s interest is waning.

Last week, Microsoft’s chief technology officer said in a speech that the handheld device he carries to get email when he’s on the go isn’t a Pocket PC, it’s a BlackBerry. The fact that the man responsible for developing Microsoft’s plans and goals would rather carry a handheld running a competitor’s operating system isn’t a good sign for the Pocket PC.

And this isn’t the only evidence. During the recent Microsoft Professional Developers Conference, a panel discussion was held on ways to advance mobile computing. When an attendee asked what the future of Pocket PC was, a Microsoft employee answered “None.” While the other Microsoft employees on the panel backed off that stark statement, it was clear that they believed there wasn’t much room between Tablet PCs and smart phones.

There’s more. A couple weeks ago, Microsoft announced that its Mobility Unit had been given the goal of selling a hundred million devices running Windows Mobile over the next three years. While at first blush that sounds like Microsoft is still committed to its Pocket PC line, the company also said it expected that a majority of these would be smart phones, not Pocket PCs.

It’s pretty clear what’s going on. Microsoft’s Mobility Unit is switching its focus from handhelds to smart phones and Tablet PCs. I don’t think it’s going to drop the Pocket PC line, but the other two are going to get more attention.

It’s hard to argue with this decision. While the number of handhelds sold annually is projected to increase slightly over the next few years, the number of smart phones sold is expected to increase dramatically and eventually dwarf handheld sales. It only makes sense for Microsoft to put its development time and money into the area with the highest expected return.

Still, even if the Mobility Unit gives more attention to smart phones, it doesn’t mean the end of the line for the Pocket PC. While most users were disappointed this summer that Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC had so few new features, this doesn’t take into account what was going on behind the scenes. The developers did a tremendous amount of work unifying the code base for Microsoft’s two mobile operating systems: Pocket PC and Smartphone. This means that many of the enhancements made for one will apply to the other. So even if the smart phone version is getting more attention, it is relatively easy for Microsoft to keep improving Pocket PC.

And all the recent news hasn’t been bad. Another thing that came out of the Professional Developers Conference was word that Microsoft is going to add VGA and landscape support to the Pocket PC version of Windows Mobile. So there is definitely still development going on.

I’m sure I’m not alone in sincerely hoping that Pocket PC does have a future. While smart phones are typically smaller and easier to carry around than handhelds, they accomplish this by having lower-resolution screens, slower processors, and less memory. For most of us, it is like taking a step backwards to the handhelds of several years ago. We’re finally getting handhelds with VGA screens and very powerful processors. I’d hate to have to give that up for a smart phone with a 176-by-220 pixel screen and a relatively slow processor, even if it does have a constant connection to the Internet.

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