In my October 1999 editorial In Search of Shangri-la, I wrote that Palm and Microsoft were headed toward the same destination, which I called “handheld Shangri-la.” Both were in a quest to create a slim, lightweight handheld that could do a lot of cool things but was still reasonably-priced. The only difference, I wrote, was that they were taking entirely different paths to get there. Now, four years later, it appears that they’re both pretty close, but has the destination changed?
As I wrote back in 1999, the only difference was how they planned to get there. Palm was guided by its basic principles of a pocketable device that’s simple to use (which at the time meant that it didn’t do much beyond calendar and contacts) and goes days, if not weeks, on a charge. Microsoft insisted that people wanted to “do more” and offered just that with its handhelds, at the expense of portability, price and battery life.
Contrary to what you might have heard, Palm never stated that features like color screens, voice recording, and multimedia were bad. What they did say was that these features should be incorporated into handhelds when the time is right. This meant, for instance, that color screens should not be added until their impact on size, price and battery life were relatively neglegible.
The potential roadblock on Palm’s path, however, was its operating system. It would need major enhancements, if not a complete rewrite, to accomodate new features. As I wrote in 1999, this would be no easy task. But Palm, and now PalmSource, has done an admirable job over the past two years shaping the OS. And Palm OS 6, with its promise of muti-tasking, is right around the corner.
Microsoft, on the other hand, was banking on Moore’s Law to guarantee that devices would become faster and cheaper. And it had $50 billion in the bank to help bankroll its long-term bet on Windows CE. It was also counting on its Windows brand name to sway consumers, and especially businesses.
The obstacle in Microsoft’s — well, actually Pocket PC’s — path to handheld Shangri-La was twofold. First, Moore’s Law helped Palm as much as it did Microsoft. Second, Microsoft wasn’t necessarily commited to handhelds as much as it was to mobility. Fact is, it doesn’t really matter to Microsoft if people buy Tablet PCs, Smartphones, or Pocket PCs, as long as they purchase something that contains its software. After all, they sell gasoline, not cars.
A new horizon
So where are they now? It’s safe to say that they’re both pretty close to the original goal. But now it appears that the ultimate destination may have changed.
Some industry analysts have begun to predict the death of handhelds, citing the growth in smart cell phones, and other convergent devices, as its death knell. But it appears that Palm, with its Handspring acquisition, and Microsoft, with its Smartphone platform, have recognized that their original destination was not, in fact, Shangri-la, but a mirage, and have set their sights on the new promised land.
So the journey continues.