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By Chris De Herrera 
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What is in The Future of Windows Mobile Pocket PCs?
By Chris De Herrera , Copyright 2003

Published:  12/21/2003

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So you want to know about the future of the Pocket PC? Well there have been some recent hints that things are changing in Microsoftís Mobile Devices Divisionís ideas about what a Pocket PC is. So before I get ahead of myself letís spend a minute recapping the current unofficial definition of a Pocket PC.

A Quick Look at the Current Pocket PC Landscape

With the Pocket PC 2000, Pocket PC 2002 and Windows Mobile 2003, Microsoft has had an official hardware definition of what a Pocket PC is in order for OEMs to license their software. This discussion is not based on that official hardware definition because it has not been made public. Instead it focuses on what the Pocket PC hardware designs have had in common.

Windows Mobile 2003 Designs

The Windows Mobile 2003 definition included the same features as the Pocket PC 2002 such as a 240 x 320 color display, infrared, USB synchronization, application launch buttons, headphone jack and optionally the integration of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and CDMA or GSM cellular capabilities and of course the Pocket PC software. For 2003, Microsoft has added support for a built-in digital camera (via 3rd party software), a 480 x 640 display with the new Toshiba e800 series and a built in keyboard with the iPAQ 4300 series. Also, Microsoft spent a lot of time focusing on making the Pocket PC OS usable with a keyboard. As with all generations of Windows CE, Microsoft has supported faster and faster CPUs however with Pocket PC 2002, they have limited Pocket PCs to the ARM architecture.

What are the Future Changes?

Well I think that this is just the beginning. At the 2003 Professional Developerís Conference, Microsoft also discussed adding additional functionality to the Pocket PC OS. (Slides) They were telling developers to be prepared to support larger displays and screen rotation in their applications. I think that adding this functionality as a standard for the Pocket PC will encourage more users to move to it as they can see more information on the screen. I know that a software vendor has been working on a solution to provide screen rotation on the fly for Windows Mobile 2003 users as well.

Also, hardware vendors such as Wacom is reporting that future devices may use electromagnetic digitizers like the Tablet PCs do instead of the analog digitizers that the Pocket PCs use now. That digitizer would allow users to put their hands or cheeks for Phone Edition on their display without having them press functions we donít want.

I find it quite interesting to see that the latest SmartPhones are clamshell devices with the displays covered by the keypad. I expect that we will see OEMs create Pocket PCs that are clamshells in design to provide the functionality for a keyboard and protect the screen.

A Trip Down Memory LaneÖ

So with the advent of higher resolution displays and built-in keyboard possibly in a clamshell, It seems that we may be taking a journey into the past. Prior to creating the Pocket PC, Microsoftís first venture into the Personal Digital Assistants was the Handheld PC. The first generation devices included a built in keyboard as well as 240 x 480 displays. Future generations included a 640 x 480 or 800 x 600 displays and the ability to hook up a VGA monitor. It looks like the Pocket PC may soon have even more features than the latest Handheld PCs! I think that the definition of the Pocket PC versus the Handheld PC is blurring to say the least.

What do Users Want?

Well from what Iíve seen and heard over the many years Iíve spent covering Windows CE and the Pocket PC, they want desktop functionality in the palm of their hand. The changes Iíve described on the horizon will move users closer to getting what theyíve been asking for. Iím happy to see that screen rotation will be included in some future release because I think this is one of the things users want the most. It allows them to see more of specific applications such as Excel or Pocket Internet Explorer in the same orientation they are used to seeing on the desktop. With the addition of a keyboard, the Pocket PC comes close and closer to being a very portable desktop replacement.

Future Pocket PCs versus Tablet PCs?

I know that some users are thinking that the Pocket PCs and Tablet PCs may cover the same ground. Well in order for that to occur, the Tablet PC would have to get a much smaller display than the smallest 8Ē display that is being used today. Clearly the Tablet PCs do not have the same battery life as a Pocket PC does and I think this will continue to be one of the major differentiating factors for users for years to come. Further the requirement that Tablet PCs have to run Windows XP requires a 800MHz CPU that uses the x86 architecture and hard disks with at least 10 GB to be useful. So far these designs require batteries the size of 3 large chocolate bars combined to meet the systemsí power requirements. Also even with suspend/resume which takes 5-10 seconds, the Tablet PCs are not as easy and quick to use as a Pocket PC which has instant on and a second to launch applications. I think that Tablet PCs will become smaller but I do not expect to see a Tablet PC the size of the Pocket PC (i.e. 8 ounces or less) for at least 2 years.

A Variety of Hardware Designs

While some of this information may be evolutionary, it does help users that are not reading the latest tidbits from various trade sources understand where the Pocket PC is going. I hope that future Pocket PCs live up to the concepts that are being touted by vendors and OEMs. I would not recommend waiting for the Tablet PCs to become small enough to compete with the Pocket PCs. Also, I do not know when Microsoft will release a next generation operating system that incorporates the screen rotation and resolution features. On a final note, I believe that it will take some time for the hardware OEMs to figure out what the hardware should look like for the future Pocket PCs so look for multiple hardware designs.

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