At the end of the year, it’s only natural to look back and think about everything that has happened in the previous twelve months.
As I’ve been doing this, certain news stories leap out at me as being the most significant of the whole year.
These were the developments that had the largest effect on the handheld market as a whole.
Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition and VGA Pocket PCs
It’s big news anytime Microsoft releases a new version of its operating system for handhelds and smartphones.
Still, Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition isn’t the huge improvement that many have been hoping for. However, along with other new features, it does include support for 640-by-480-pixel (VGA) screens, which led to a good number of these going on the market from a variety of companies.
According to industry insiders, Microsoft originally hadn’t planned to release this version at all. Instead, VGA support was going to debut the next time the operating system got a major upgrade. However, the release date for this kept slipping, and when it it was pushed back to 2005, the Pocket PC licensees, who were eager to get handhelds with VGA screens on the market, convinced Microsoft to put out a minor upgrade with VGA support.
Sony and Toshiba Leave the Market
Two companies that were once important players in the world handheld market pulled out this year.
Sony dropped out at the beginning of the summer, while Toshiba left a few months later. Neither of these has totally stopped making handhelds, but any new models will only be released in these companies’ home country, Japan.
While Sony and Toshiba typically had less than 10 percent of the handheld market, they were both innovators that kept pushing the limits of what can be done with a handheld.
For example, Toshiba made the first Pocket PC with a VGA screen, while Sony brought robust multimedia support to the Palm OS long before any of its competitors did. Both of these features are now common on their competitor’s devices.
Sony’s decision was an especially hard blow to the Palm platform, as it leaves palmOne without a strong competitor. People looking for a new Palm OS Handheld not made by palmOne now have to turn to much smaller companies, like Tapwave.
Toshiba’s pullout was less significant for the Pocket PC market, as there are still several good-sized companies besides HP making Pocket PC handhelds, most notably Dell.
Competition among Palm OS licensees, however, isn’t nearly so robust.
No Palm OS Cobalt Handhelds
One of the biggest stories of 2004 was something that didn’t happen: the release of any handhelds running Palm OS Cobalt.
PalmSource finished up work on the first version of Cobalt at the end of last year. At its developer conference a couple months later, PalmSource showed off all the capabilities of this latest version of its operating system, which include the ability to run applications written in ARM-native code and much more robust multimedia functionality.
Palm users eagerly waited for the release of the first handheld or smartphone running Cobalt. And kept waiting. And kept waiting.
This fall, PalmSource released an updated version of Cobalt that included many features the original lacked. But still no devices running Cobalt were released.
It is still not known when the first handheld or smartphone with Cobalt will hit the market, though many hope it will come this spring.
The Rise of the BlackBerry
During the third quarter, more BlackBerries were sold in the U.S. than iPAQs. And market-research firm Gartner believes RIM may become the biggest seller of handhelds in the world next year.
Its rivals have taken notice, and an increasing number of cellular-wireless handhelds are coming on the market, especially Pocket PC models. Whether RIM can hold onto its lead in this category remains to be seen.
The Decline of the Palm OS
During the third quarter of this year — for the first time ever — more Pocket PCs were sold than Palm OS handhelds.
There are a variety of factors that led to this. Sony’s pull-out from the market pushed some people over to the rival camp as they looked for devices with features not available on palmOne models.
Also, many people have been holding onto their current Palm OS Handheld as they wait for the first models running Palm OS Cobalt, which has turned out to be a very long wait.
In addition, Pocket PCs are stronger competitors than they used to be. As previously mentioned, there are several high-end Pocket PCs on the market with VGA screens, which is twice the resolution available on any Palm OS handheld. There are far more Pocket PCs with built-in Wi-Fi, they frequently have faster processors, and many offer multiple memory card slots. Palm OS models still have some advantages, but not nearly as many as they used to.
Whatever the cause, the number of Palm OS models being sold has declined, while the number of Pocket PCs has grown.