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From the editor

Commentary by Pen Computing Magazine's editor-in-chief


By Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
June 2000, issue 34

One of the things that makes my work here at Pen Computing Magazine interesting and enjoyable is that our charter allows us to cover a variety of emerging technologies. While the name of the publication I co-founded in the Fall of 1993 specifically refers to an alternate input technology, in my mind Pen Computing Magazine has always been about alternate and future technologies, technologies that aim at removing the bottleneck between human user and electronic machine. The keyboard is, of course, the most obvious of those bottlenecks, slowing down the interchange between man and machine to a trickle.

As a result, we've seen some of the best minds in the business seek alternate ways to interface with machines. Handwriting recognition has long been sort of a Holy Grail of computing--a quest that turned out to be far more difficult than initially thought. Over the years we've seen many attempts at enabling perfect (or at least acceptable) handwriting recognition, and an equal number of attempts at making voice recognition work. In addition, we've seen the emergence of a different breed of alternate input technologies. Graffiti and a number of similar products are essentially "handwriting keyboards" where you write a symbol that is then interpreted by the computer as a keystroke. Others have adapted and optimized keyboards for pen input, replacing the old QWERTY layout with something faster and more suitable for a new breed of small, mobile devices. We've seen very clever ways of entering data using a variety of "shorthand" technologies. Since we're creatures of habit, learning to do things a different way can be a challenge. Which is why many of the products have been met with limited success though those who mastered them quickly became converts, reporting truly amazing data input speed.

While the quest for the perfect way of interacting with a mobile computing device goes on, it's become quite clear that very small computers are the way of the future. Palm has proven that with all those millions of Palm devices sold, and it's quite obviously clear to Microsoft as well. At the official launch of the Pocket PC on April 19 at New York's Grand Central Station, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said, "...as we look to the next 25 years, while the PC will remain an important, essential, fundamental device, there will be handheld, wireless devices ... that will also become extremely, extremely important."

From all accounts, the Pocket PC launch may have been Microsoft's most successful attempt to crack the PDA market yet. True, the initial launch of Windows CE in the Fall of 1996 was splashier, and both the launch of the handheld and the palm-size PC saw more hardware partners, but in terms of substance, it's clear that Microsoft has never been so serious. The boys up in Redmond don't like to lose, and after having taken a royal beating at the hands of little Palm for several years running, I can just see Bill Gates getting really steamed.

So what does the introduction of the Pocket PC mean? Judging by the number of emails we get asking our opinion on the Pocket PC, it looks like consumer are skeptical and don't really know what to expect. A good number probably have spent quite a bit of money on older Windows CE devices and wonder why they should trust Microsoft this time. Here's my own personal opinion on the Pocket PC and its relative role in the mobile computing landscape:

Everyone's familiar with the old "three steps forward and two steps backward" syndrome that so often characterizes a new product. Well, this time Microsoft took more like four steps forward and just one backward. There is absolutely no doubt that the roster of applications that comes with Pocket PC is amazingly, stunningly powerful. They are far, far, far ahead of anything available on a Palm OS device. More so than ever before, the only thing a Palm OS device and a Pocket PC have incommon is their shape and size. While Pocket PCs are powerful computers with almost limitless application potential, Palm OS devices are, well, connected organizers. And that's exactly one of Microsoft's problems. Everyone knows what to expect from a Palm OS device. It's small, quick, and does the few things it does really well. It's much harder to know what to expect from a CE device. For one thing, CE devices have changed and morphed so much over the years, and Microsoft never really managed to come up with a consistent marketing message. For another, there's no denying that while the Palm Pilot got it right from the start, Windows CE did not.

The Pocket PC, on the other hand, is almost right. I say ‘almost' because it's a work in progress. Any platform with so much potential and so much emerging technology built-in is by definition a work in progress. And the interface still isn't quite there. While I appreciate the cleaned up screens, they now look almost too stark, and the fact that I still cannot close an application when I am done with it drives me nuts. I really don't want to have to tap Start/Settings/System/Memory/Running Programs so that I can manually terminate those little hogs when I don't need them.

Other than that, there's an awful lot to like about the Pocket PC. The inclusion of Pocket Word and Pocket Excel mean that I can take even large documents with me. Yes, they are mainly for look-up, and that's fine with me. Pocket Internet Explorer is the first real browser I've seen on any PDA. I'm all for web clippings and WAP and whatever other microbrowsers there are, but it's still nice to see a full web page in all of its glory, color and all. I always loved Newton Books, and therefore love the Microsoft Reader. It has many features Newton Books never had, and ClearType technology makes reading on the small screens easy on the eye. The Windows Media Player, Microsoft Money, Pocket Streets, likewise, are almost too good to be true. And I am totally in love with the Cassiopeia's Mobile Video Player that lets me take video clips of my four-year-old son wherever I go. Any parent can relate to that.

What truly clinches the deal for me, however, is the inclusion of the best handwriting recognition engine since the late Newton MessagePad 2100. Which is not amazing as the Pocket PC includes essentially the same version of ParaGraph's CalliGrapher that came with the Newton. Microsoft acquired the rights to it in a complex licensing deal with Vadem, corporate owners of ParaGraph. Though called "Transcriber" and not part of the Pocket PC ROM (you must install it from the CD that comes with every Pocket PC), it works just about as well as it did on the Newton. The user interface is a bit different, but like on the Newton you can write anywhere on the screen and the recognizer will convert the words in the proper sequence. I know that a lot of people (many of whom never even used a Newton) still mock Newton handwriting recognition, but the fact is that it worked very, very well on the MP 2000 and 2100. I have used it for years, taking notes during lectures and often writing whole articles while on airplanes.

I can now finally retire my Newton because the Pocket PC offers the same excellent handwriting recognition in a smaller, lighter package that's based on contemporary technology. I need to say, though, that while I totally trusted my Newton--any Newton--with my data, I don't trust CE devices in that regard. Too often have I let a CE device sit for a while just to find that it was totally and completely dead and all traces of any data were gone. Compare that to an old Newton MP 130 that I just turned on for the first time since 1996. The data was still there despite long dead batteries and no memory card.

So there are still some interface problems to be resolved, battery life remains an issue, and I really need to be sure I won't lose data. But other than that, the Pocket PC is getting awfully close to the original ideal of a PDA--a little device that carries all your data, has the answer to most of your questions, lets you communicate with the world out there, and, increasingly, can do just about anything. No wonder Microsoft feels the need to really get into the act. PCs are not dead by a long shot, but the future belongs to that most personal or all personal computers, the PDA.

Interesting also is the impact that the (re)emergence of PDAs is having on vertical market vendors of mobile systems. Most have taken a serious look at Windows CE (there are actually many more vertical then consumer market CE devices), but Microsoft's ever-changing course has been hard on them. As a result, there's a degree of disenchantment, and we've seen renewed emphasis on "full function" Windows 98/2000 pen computers such as the Getac CA-35 slate we reviewed in the last issue, and the speedy and most impressive Stylistic 3400 pen tablet computer from the "new" Fujitsu PC Corporation that now includes the former Fujitsu Personal Systems, Inc. Interesting times, indeed. -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer is editor-in-chief of Pen Computing Magazine and general editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at chb@pencomputing.com.


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