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Pocket PC Stagnation?

Last week I came across two highly interesting tidbits that lead me to believe that Pocket PC platform may be getting a bit lost in the shuffle over at Microsoft. I don't think Pocket PC is going away, but rather that Microsoft may be looking to greener pastures like their new Smartphone platform or Tablet PC platform. I'm wondering now if Pocket PC devices are being squeezed out at the MS money trough, especially if articles like The Death of the Handheld Computer are being read and believed at Microsoft Mobile headquarters.

My first tidbit, is a Pocket PC Thoughts column by Jason Dunn entitled Palm This, Palm That, Toshiba Might Throw in Their Hat? and the related forum thread. In the column, Jason longs for the olden days, when Pocket PCs were the devices setting the standards for handheld specs while Palm OS devices had 160 x 160 pixel monochrome screens running at 16MHz. Now he's feeling that innovation seems only to be happening in the Palm OS camp, with the Tungsten T3, Tapwave Zodiac, Sony UX-50 and other Palm-powered devices hitting the market now.

When I look at Palm units with that resolution, there's no denying it: the crispness of the text, and quite often the quality of the screens, is a marked improvement over what we have in the Pocket PC camp. Since back in late 2001, Pocket PC owners have been begging Microsoft for a bump in resolution. We're now coming up on the end of 2003, and still we sit at 320 x 240. And when you consider that Windows Mobile 2003 just came out a few months ago, given Microsoft's release cycle, it will be late 2004 before we see anything changed. How did Microsoft fail to see this coming when their users have been yelling about it for three years?

Some of the forum posts are very telling, with several former and current Pocket PC enthusiasts sometimes grudgingly buying Palm OS devices because they're offering fresher options not available on Pocket PC handhelds:

"I love my PPC, but I'm quickly losing interest in it. The lines are no longer blurred; they're being downright erased." -- vincenzosi

"From where I'm sitting, the PPCs problems lie squarely on MS' shoulders. You can't tell me after 100 different PPCs come out, all with a D-Pad in the middle and two buttons on either side that there Dell, HP, and Toshiba lack any degree of creativity. It seems to me that what we're seeing is the result of MS tying their hands too tightly." -- Scott R

"I became disillusioned with my H5450's poor performance and activesync woes. I was constantly fooling around with the PPC to make it work right. After deciding to make the switch, I've been more than mildly impressed by the way this Palm works (Who'd have believed it!). It simply works without hassle and resetting and folling around all the time. I've become more productive because of my decision, too. That's the bottom line for me--does the device work right and can I use it and not have to play with it all the time to get my work done." -- bridgecrosser

It's very interesting to read the boards for this article and see some of the thoughts, comments and arguments for and against both platforms. I was quite surprised to see so many Pocket PC fans losing faith in Microsoft publicly, but I suppose if nothing has really happened to the OS in 3 years besides bug fixes, I can understand why.

As I thought about all of these posts over the weekend, I realized that to Microsoft, Pocket PC was just a foot in the door, or a plug the hole solution, to provide a way for users who currently use Windows to have a portable Windows device (brand loyalty) and to counter the threat of popular Palm handhelds. They needed something to stem losses to the more popular Palm OS devices, which were eroding that area of the market.

Meanwhile, for PalmSource, Palm OS devices are the only business for them. They have a much larger stake in the success of their platform surviving and winning users than does Microsoft, because if Palm OS loses to Microsoft, they're dead, the end, kaput. If Microsoft loses ground with Pocket PC, whoop-dee-do! They can just put their massive resources and personnel onto Smartphone or Tablet PC instead.

In reality, I think Microsoft sees that the future for them lies in markets other than Pocket PC, such as Smartphones or Tablet PC. They cannot afford to let Pocket PC get too featured or powerful, or they risk cannibalizing those other areas, which offer them millions of new potential buyers of their OS and software. For that reason I think Pocket PC devices will not see much improvement other than trickle down features from the Smartphone platform.

Steve Bush at Brighthand has an interesting column called Palm vs. Pocket PC: The Paths Grow Nearer which details how Palm devices have more or less closed the features and specs gap on Pocket PCs.

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.

I thought this quote does a good job of pointing out how Microsoft's interests are in the entire mobile area. To me, that means Pocket PC is merely a piece of the pie and maybe becoming a smaller and less important piece of it.

Meanwhile, PalmSource and its licensees are cranking out all sorts of interesting devices, with features that meet and often beat those of competing Pocket PCs. Beyond features, you just will not find anything comparable in design to the UX-50 or the Tapwave Zodiac or the Dana Wireless.

Microsoft's insistence that their hardware partners stick to strict specs means eventually Pocket PCs are going to fight it out with each other on price and maybe a single spec like Wi-Fi, because other than that, they're virtually identical. And with Dell and Gateway in that kind of battle, I can see that it's going to get tougher for Pocket PC hardware makers to keep things going.

At the very least, the handheld market will be interesting to watch... :-)

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