Last week, Microsoft held Mobius 2002, its yearly get-together with people, including yours truly, who run or work for websites devoted to some aspect of mobile computing. Microsoft footed the bill to fly us to Redmond where we learned about the latest Microsoft-related mobile products and even received some samples (for example, each attendee was given a T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone).
This year’s Mobius covered a wide range of topics, from the latest Pocket PC handhelds to computer monitors you can detach and use anywhere in your house.
A major initiative coming from Microsoft in the very near future is Smartphone 2002, which is a version of the Win CE operating system specially redesigned for mobile phones. Jonas Hasselberg, who is the product manager, gave a presentation on it at Mobius.
Smartphone 2002 should not be confused with Pocket PC Phone Edition, which has been designed for handhelds that are similar to typical Pocket PC models except with wireless capabilities. Smartphone 2002 is for mobile phones with extra wireless features, like email and Internet access.
Probably the most obvious difference is in the screens. A wireless handheld running Pocket PC Phone Edition will have a 320 by 240 pixel screen that is touch activated. A handset running Smartphone 2002 will have a 220 by 176 pixel screen and have a joystick for user input. Also, handsets with Smartphone 2002 will have a hard keypad, as opposed to a Pocket PC Phone Edition’s virtual one.
Nevertheless, there is still some overlap in their capabilities, like the ability to access email and the Web, make phone calls, play games, and run other types of applications.
The Phone Edition is for mobile professionals, while the Smartphone is for typical consumers and mobile professionals who don’t want the full capabilities of the Phone Edition.
Applications written for one of these won’t automatically run on the other but can be ported.
There are already some devices running the Phone Edition, like the one from T-Mobile Brighthand reviewed a few months ago, while the first handsets running Smartphone 2002 are expected before the end of this year.
Microsoft designed its Smartphone platform to allow companies to make relatively inexpensive handsets. However, devices that run this OS will be capable of multitasking, playing advanced games, and multimedia. There is even a version of Windows Media Player for it.
A company called Digital Concepts was at Mobius 2002, showing off some games it had developed for Smartphone 2002, like Bust ’em, which is sort of like an advanced version of Breakout. Company representatives also demoed RocketElite, which is similar to the classic Lunar Lander, except people are shooting at while you are trying to land.
DAT Group was also at Mobius, showing off a system to allow mobile phone companies to wirelessly sell and deliver applications to users running Smartphone 2002. It also has a system to allow mobile carriers to offer their customers the ability to personalize their Smartphone 2002 handsets from their PCs via a website.
Mobius wasn’t just about Smartphone 2002. There were also presentations on other topics.
Pocket PC 2002 Update
Microsoft took the opportunity to announce the third Pocket PC 2002 update. This includes Windows Media layer 8.5, which offers improved performance and playlist management, plus integration with the Connection Manager. The update also adds tab support to Pocket IE, a new default Today theme, and other bug fixes.
Microsoft has shipped the update to its licensees and they will release it in the near future.
Anyone who has missed previous updates needn’t worry; this update also has all changes included in previous ones.
David Feldman, a Senior Product Manager from ViewSonic, was at Mobius 2002 to demonstrate his company’s latest handheld, the V35. This is a Pocket PC with a 300 MHz XScale processor, a 320 by 240 pixel screen, 32 MB of memory, and an SD slot.
It will go on sale in the United States later this year for $299. It will go on sale in Asia at the same time. ViewSonic will offer it in Europe early next year for about 300 euros.
Mr. Feldman said the target market for this device was Palm users who want the familiar Windows graphical user interface.
It might seem like a bit of a jump for a company known for its computer monitors to be releasing a handheld but Mr. Feldman explained by saying his company considers the screen to be the most important part of a handheld and screens are something ViewSonic is expert on.
This won’t be the company’s only Pocket PC model. According to Mr. Feldman, ViewSonic will release a full range of handhelds, including high-end models and ones with wireless access.
Mobius wasn’t restricted to just handhelds. There were presentations on all types of devices related to mobile computing. One of the most interesting of these is the Tablet PC, which is what Microsoft hopes will be the next generation of the laptop.
Tablet PCs can take two forms. One is a typical tablet format, with an LCD screen that can be plugged into a base station. The other is essentially a small laptop with a rotating screen that can be reconfigured into a tablet shape.
These don’t use a touch screen; instead, they can detect the movements of a specific stylus. This is necessary because the user needs to be able to put his or her hand on the screen when writing, which isn’t practical with a touch screen
On the software side of this is Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, which offers additional features to allow the Tablet PC to take handwritten input.
Microsoft has created a system that is quite different from the typical handheld’s handwriting recognition system. Instead of translating each written character immediately into a type-written one, Tablet PC allows users to leave most of their material exactly as they entered it: handwritten. If the user chooses to convert handwritten notes into text that is possible but frequently it won’t be necessary.
For example, a user can create a handwritten note in which the word “plastic” is used, then close it. Later, the user can do a search for the word “plastic” and the note will show up on the results list, even though it has never been converted to text.
Tablet PC does not try to adapt itself its user’s handwriting style. Instead, Microsoft took handwriting samples from hundreds of thousands of people and created a system that is usable to people with average handwriting.
There is an application included with Tablet PC called the Journal that is primarily intended to deal with handwritten input. A window can be pulled up in other applications that allows handwriting to be converted to text. Though there have no official announcements, many companies are working to create versions of their applications to better support this handwriting system.
Chris Barry from Microsoft, who did the presentation, said his company sees Tablet PCs being appropriate for anyone who needs to get work done away from their desk. This includes both people who have to go to meetings on the other side of the continent and those who have to go to meetings on the other side of the building.
There are quite a few companies that plan to release Tablet PCs, the first of which are expected early next month. Prices are expected to range between $2000 and $3000.
For those who aren’t interested in carrying a whole computer around with them, Microsoft’s Megan Kidd talked about Smart Displays, which are computer monitors that can be carried around someone’s house while still wirelessly connected to a PC.
These are LCDs that can serve are a user’s regular monitor but can be detached and carried into another room and remain connected to the PC via an 802.11 connection. When disconnected, a Smart Display does not become a stand alone PC; instead, it acts as if there was a very long cable between the monitor and your PC.
Microsoft is targeting home users with this, though it requires Win XP Pro. The first Smart Displays will be available in the first quarter of 2003 and will cost between $800 and $1000.
Q & A
At the end of the day, there was a general question and answer session with Beth Goza and Ed Suwanjidar from Microsoft’s mobility team.
As the presentation on Tablet PC’s had just finished, one of the questions was on whether they saw Pocket PC handhelds and Tablet PC’s merging into one device. Mr. Suwanjidar said both have different enough uses that he believes they will remain separate.
In response to a question, Mr. Suwanjidar said Microsoft has no plans to add Macintosh support to the Pocket PC platform. He said there were limited resources available and Microsoft would rather spend them making the Windows version of ActiveSync better.
He also said Microsoft was considering ways to allow users to easily shut Pocket PC applications down, rather than simply minimizing them, but wouldn’t commit to anything.