Planes, Trains and Pocket PCs

by Reads (6,279)

Last Friday I attended the Pocket PC, Wireless and Beyond conference at Microsoft’s corporate campus in Redmond, Washington, hosted by Derek Brown and Beth Goza of Microsoft’s Pocket PC team. The concept behind the conference was to bring together people identified as leading enthusiasts “…influential in the Palm community” and indoctrinate them in the world of Pocket PCs.

Now I’ve never considered myself very influential in the Palm community — in fact, I get my share of criticism from Palm users who consider Brighthand’s coverage of handhelds to be decidedly slanted toward Pocket PCs, and I certainly didn’t need an indoctrination in Pocket PCs since I own several of them. Still I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to (1) learn about upcoming devices from the experts in Microsoft’s Mobile Devices Division, (2) chat with some of Microsoft’s Pocket PC team, and (3) meet these “leading Palm enthusiasts”, several of whom I’d communicated with by phone or email. Plus, the entire trip was paid for by Microsoft (and each attendee was given a gift pack of technology items, including a couple of Pocket PCs, as well).

So I accepted Microsoft’s invitation and last Thursday flew from Atlanta to Seattle — via Houston — to attend this unique get-together. I thought that many of you would be interested in learning what I discovered on my trip so I’ve put together this report that I hope you’ll find entertaining. Please bear with me as I digress from time to time, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to use this forum to discuss other topics besides PDAs. That’s why I call this report Planes, Trains and Pocket PCs.


The Future of Devices

Microsoft VP Ben Waldman Ben Waldman, Vice President of Microsoft’s Mobile Devices Division, kicked off the conference with an insightful overview of Microsoft’s vision in his presentation titled The Future of Mobile Devices.

Microsoft’s vision has certainly changed over the years. In 1975 it centered around Bill Gates’ famous words, "A computer on every desk and in every home." But as we enter the new era of mobile communications Microsoft sees the need for a new vision. So we now have "Empower people through great software any time, any place, and on any device."

What Microsoft is looking to do is provide the ability to synchronize with your personal information using Mobile Outlook, access your corporate information, and access the Web wherever you are, whenever you want. Obviously, mobile devices, including PDAs, play a key role in this new vision.

So what can we expect from Microsoft? Everything. They’ll be actively involved in the three key components of mobile communications: content and content aggregation, wireless voice and data, and devices. And Microsoft is positioning Visual Studio 6.0 as the development tool to build these mobile applications.

For this trip report, I’m going to skip two of those areas — content and wireless networks — and concentrate on devices.

What I appreciated most about Waldman’s presentation (and this concept was reiterated later that day by Microsoft’s Brian Shafer) was that in its research it’s found that there simply isn’t a single "ideal device" but several types of devices that fit the needs of different consumer segments. These include feature phones (voice-centric phones that have limited data needs), smart phones (phones that also provide a rich data experience), wireless PDAs (data-centric handhelds that also support limited voice), and two-body solutions (such as a phone and a PDA that communicate via Bluetooth).

Feature phones are similar to what we’re seeing right now with the WAP-enabled phones on the market. Feature phones will enable access to e-mail, personal information and the Web using Microsoft’s Mobile Explorer microbrowser, which will support both HTML and WML. Look for devices from Ericsson and Samsung.

Then there’s Microsoft’s jewel in the crown, its Stinger smartphone. Stinger appears to be all that it’s been touted to be: a full-featured phone and PDA in a small package. The weakest link in the chain, in my opinion, won’t be the device but the network. Waiting 45 seconds for the device to connect to the network seems unreasonable. Instant-on networks will have to be in place before we see widespread acceptance of smart phones in the United States.

Wireless Pocket PCs and two-body wireless solutions are available today. There’s Compaq’s iPAQ coupled with Compaq’s PC Card Expansion Pack and Sierra Wireless’ CDPD AirCard (so long as you can get your hands on a PC Card sleeve.) Or you can use the two-body solution of an IR-enabled cell phone and Pocket PC, or a data-enabled cell phone and a Socket Digital Phone Card. Later this fall Casio and DoCoMo will release a CompactFlash PHS card in Japan, which will support streaming video. And in the United States we’ll see the Novatel CDPD wireless sled for the Jornada and the Socket Bluetooth CompactFlash card. In Europe next year Casio and Siemens will jointly release its integrated GSM/GPRS device.

So, wireless is definitely coming, but I would estimate that it’ll be 2004 before it’ll be widespread in the United States.

Microsoft’s Pocket PC Team

Anyone who’s been active on Brighthand for a while knows that I have mixed feelings about Microsoft. First, I believe that some of the business practices that they’ve engaged in in the past were suspect and that the anti-trust rulings against them are warranted. I also believe that, while they’ve certainly made outstanding contributions to the field, the technology revolution that we’ve witnessed during the past thirty years would have likely happened with or without them.

However, I do hold a tremendous respect for Microsoft, its people and their accomplishments, and this is abundantly true for the Pocket PC team. They’ve stuck with it over the years, weathering a ton of criticism, and have built a solid product with a bright future in the process.

Several members of the Microsoft Pocket PC teamI’ve met several people in the Mobile Devices Division at PC Expos and the Pocket PC Product Launch, including Rogers Weed and Phil Holden. But this trip enabled me to meet with several members of the Pocket PC and Mobile Devices group both during the conference and that evening over dinner at Seattle’s Experience Music Project. Brian Shafer, Sandra Martinez-Vargas, Steve Seroshek, Bob Spink, Ed Suwanjindar, and several other team members are all intelligent, funny, and insightful, and are truly excited about mobile devices. And contrary to popular belief, they listen. That’s actually the foundation of their product development.

However, I think that what we as enthusiasts often fail to realize is that while our insights and feedback are valuable we are, in fact, atypical consumers — slightly geeky, if you will. The typical PDA buyer often has wants, needs and usability issues that are worlds apart from ours. So while there may be a few million of us early-adopters, there are tens of millions of PDA buyers who do not fit our profile.

So just ask yourself, if you were Microsoft or one of the device manufacturers, who would you go to first to find out what to improve or what features to incorporate in a PDA? Enthusiasts or mainstream buyers?

How do we make this work in our favor? Simple. What we need to understand is that our ability to influence Microsoft, Palm, Psion and other device manufacturers comes not from our collective buying power but from our ability to influence the larger demographic – -the typical PDA buyers — and their purchase decisions.

Palm enthusiasts and their "first time"

As I mentioned earlier, I consider myself somewhat "PDA-agnostic" (yes, I know, it’s a misnomer but don’t blame me, I didn’t coin it.) I own a dozen Palm devices, a dozen Windows CE devices, every model of Pocket PC, and several other makes of PDAs. However, most of the other thirty or so attendees at Pocket PC, Wireless and Beyond were true Palm enthusiasts and for them it was their "first time". Yes, many of them were Pocket PC virgins, so to speak.

Rick Broida and Dave JohnsonThey included Rick Broida and Dave Johnson (see picture at right), co-authors of the book How To Do Everything with Your Palm Handheld. Rick is also the founder of Tap Magazine (now Handheld Computing magazine) and Dave is the mobile computing editor for Planet IT.

Also in attendance were many of the webmasters and editors of popular PDA sites. There was Hal Schechner of PalmStation, Eric Levine of smaller.com, Wes Salmon of PDA Buzz, Joel and Sam Evans from Geek.com, and Julie Streitlemeier of The Gadgeteer. There was Calvin O. Parker from PalmGear, Jim McCarthy of Palm Guru, Steven Sande of PDAntic, and Nathan Miller of Pocket Gear. There were also several Palm enthusiasts who operate Palm user groups or are extremely active on Palm newsgroups.

In some ways I felt right at home among a group of fellow PDA enthusiasts. But I also felt oddly different. Everywhere I looked that first day I saw people with Palm Vx’s and OmniSky modems while I had my iPAQ or Cassiopeia EM-500. But the biggest difference I noticed was philosophical. I believe that if you want to offer solid advice and opinions about handheld computers you should spend some time with as many different devices as possible, including both Palm Powered handhelds and Pocket PCs. Yet, I was surprised to find out that most Palm enthusiasts had never used a Pocket PC. So everything they knew about Pocket PCs was purely secondhand and anecdotal.

I always wondered why some folks chose Palm handhelds over Pocket PCs and now I had my answer. It wasn’t simply the well-documented, rote replies like "They’re simpler" or "I don’t like to see the hourglass." They knew nothing else. There’s an old saying, "If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail." For Palm enthusiasts it’s, "If you’re a Palm enthusiast, everything looks like a Palm."

But last Friday I was surprised to witness a number of Palm enthusiasts open their eyes and minds to the Pocket PC (exactly what Microsoft had hoped for). Several joked that they’d have to change the name of their user group to the Pocket PC User Group, while others remarked how ironic it was that it took Microsoft to bring together the Palm enthusiasts. And what were most surprising were the endless comments from Palm followers that felt that Palm’s future was dim, mainly due to the lack of a clear plan. One person even told me that he saw Palm as "the next VisiCalc."

Visi-who?

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