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Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC

A detailed look at Microsoft's update of their mobile platform (November 2003 issue)

This article examines Microsoft's latest operating system for the Pocket PC from several perspectives - user features, enterprise features, software compatibility, performance, upgrades, the underlying embedded OS and program development.

Those who see Windows Mobile for the Pocket PC for the first time won't notice much of a difference between it and Pocket PC 2002. That caused an industry columnist to quip that Microsoft appears to view Pocket PC as a "mature" platform without further need for refinement. While it does look that way, it is only half the truth. The new version of Pocket PC/Windows Mobile sits on top of Windows CE .NET 4.2, a far more competent basis than the old Windows CE 3.0. In addition, Microsoft has added numerous important features, impovements, updates, enhancements under the hood, all geared towards making the Pocket PC a better, stronger, more reliable platform that fits more seamlessly into overall corporate systems and Microsoft's .NET strategy than ever before.


"Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PCs" is Microsoft's new name for the Pocket PC operating system. Why isn't it just "Pocket PC 2003"? Because Microsoft is trying to put its Pocket PC and Smartphone mobile devices under a single brand, to more closely connect the devices to the brand with which most people are familiar - Windows. Microsoft is trying to reinforce the impression that your Pocket PC is an extension of your Windows desktop. It will take some time to see if the Windows Mobile name sticks. So far, the media appears to be using the new name about half of the time, but major OEMs such as Dell, HP, Toshiba and ViewSonic are all using the term "Pocket PC 2003" on their product websites. I'll do the same thing in this article. Windows CE .Net (now at version 4.2) is being positioned more clearly as an embedded operating system. "Embedded" means that the OS isn't meant to be seen by users; Windows CE .Net and XP Embedded both fall under the "Windows Embedded" brand. Windows Embedded is for developers, and Windows Mobile is for users. Actually, Pocket PC 2003 is built on top of Windows CE .Net 4.2 (more on this later).


From a user perspective, Pocket PC 2003 is somewhere between a "dot" release and a major overhaul. It includes some significant changes that improve the overall user experience, and a number of minor tweaks. The notable changes are explained briefly in the following paragraphs.

Zero Wi-Fi Configuration: Windows XP's automatic Wi-Fi (802.11b) configuration has been added to Pocket PC 2003. This means that whenever your Wi-Fi enabled Pocket PC encounters an active network, you're asked if you want to connect. Once you connect, the settings are saved so that the next time you're in range of the same wireless network, all you have to do is say "Yes." The result is that you can move easily between wireless networks. (Note that a new Pocket PC 2003 driver for your Wi-Fi hardware is required to make this work. The same automation also applies to modem and wired LAN connections.) To help publicize this feature, Microsoft has entered into an agreement with T-Mobile HotSpot, Boingo Wireless and Wayport to provide free wireless hotspot usage for 30 days for new Pocket PC 2003 owners.

Native Bluetooth Support: Support for Bluetooth (PAN) wireless is now built into Pocket PC 2003. This means that if you have a Bluetooth-enabled cellphone (for example), you can use it as a modem to access the Internet with your Bluetooth-enabled Pocket PC. You can also beam data such as contacts to other Bluetooth-enabled devices.

Updated Internet Explorer: Pocket Internet Explorer in Pocket PC 2003 is upgraded to match the standards support and capabilities of IE 6.0. This includes (among other things) HTML 4.01, XML, XHTML (Basic and 1.0), Cascading Style Sheets, Wireless Markup Language 2.0, JScript and VBScript 5.5, WTLS, IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6) and animated GIFs. This means that it's once again possible to design websites that conform to the latest web guidelines and which will work properly and look good on a Pocket PC.

Windows Media Player 9 Series: The Pocket PC 2003 media player is now at the level of the latest Windows XP player. The result should be smaller media files on your Pocket PC, smoother playback and the ability to play a wider range of files. Using this player, you can play back local or streaming broadband content at up to 300 Kbps.

Image Viewer: A new digital imaging application called "Pictures" is included in Pocket PC 2003. It allows viewing images individually, as thumbnails or as part of a slideshow. You can also do simple editing (rotation, cropping and adjusting the brightness & contrast) right on the Pocket PC.

Enhanced Messaging Support: When you're writing an email, email addresses are automatically drawn from the Contacts database as you type them, common spelling errors are automatically corrected as you type, and your signature file is automatically appended to the message.

Enhanced Contacts: Typing any portion of a contact's first or last name brings up the contact's information; vCards are now supported for better integration with desktop Outlook.

Enhanced Calendar: The calendar now includes multi-day views with weekends and holidays highlighted in different colors, making it easier to see your free time (if you have any). VCals are now supported for better integration with desktop Outlook.

Pocket MSN: A new Pocket MSN application includes support for MSN Messenger, MSN Hotmail, Alerts and Mobile Web.

Jawbreaker Game: A "new" game called Jawbreaker is included. The game, similar to the PC game "Collapse! II" from GameHouse.com, was originally written for Palm OS by Oopdreams.com; it's still available under the name "Bubblet".

Active Sync 3.7: The Pocket PC 2003 bundle includes the latest version of Active Sync, which delivers improved USB support and support for wireless synchronization via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Pocket PC 2003 requires this new version; you can't use an older version to sync with a Pocket PC 2003 device.

Keyboard Support: Pocket PC 2003 now supports integrated or external keyboards. Keyboard shortcuts for menu commands and navigation are also included.

What's missing? One obvious thing is any enhancements to the built-in applications such as Pocket Excel and Pocket Word (with the sole exception of a spell-checker added to the latter). These applications are still very weak. For example, if a Word document contains fonts not available on the Pocket PC, Pocket Word chooses the closest substitute, which seems reasonable. But if you edit the document and send it back to the PC, the original font selections are lost. Any tables included in Word documents are mangled by Pocket Word beyond recognition or repair. Pocket Excel still cannot generate or display graphs. Maybe Microsoft will eventually realize that Palm and third parties solved all these kinds of problems years ago.


The 2003 version of Pocket PC maintains its substantial lead over Palm OS as the best operating system for the enterprise (ignoring ease-of-use issues, of course). Pocket PC 2003 includes even more features that are important to enterprise users, such as the following:

Virtual Private Networks (VPN): Microsoft has added Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol & IP Security (L2TP/IPSec), and encryption using 128-bit SSL and/or 128-bit CAPI to the Pocket PC VPN Client. This high level of security is used in Windows Server 2003 and in other VPNs from vendors such as Cisco. Using the completely re-designed Connection Manager, a Pocket PC 2003 user can configure multiple VPNs.

Wi-Fi Security: Microsoft has added support for IEEE 802.1x in Pocket PC 2003. 802.1x uses a digital certificate stored on the Pocket PC to authenticate the user connecting to a Windows 2000 or 2003 Server. Pocket PC 2003 also supports Protected Extensible Authentication Protocol (PEAP) and Extensible Authentication Protocol Transport Layer Security (EAP-TLS) as part of the support for 802.1x.

Pocket IE Digital Certificates: Network administrators can install root and local digital certificates to allow specific Pocket PCs to access secure websites. Microsoft includes some basic root certificates as a bonus.

Support for Outlook Web Access: Pocket IE 2002 was totally unable to handle Outlook Web Access (OWA), which is often seen as critically important for email in the enterprise. OWA works very well in Pocket IE 2003.

Real-Time Communications Server Support: Pocket PC 2003 includes support for the MSN Messenger client with Microsoft's Real-Time Communications (RTC) Server and/or Exchange Server 2003.

Host Request Control: Pocket PC 2003 allows controlling where requests are sent based on the name of the host. In addition to a simple default, network administrators can set up special mappings to tell the Pocket PC whether to use the Internet or the Enterprise ("Work") connection to find a specific host.

Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6): IPv6 allows the Internet to support a very large number of additional IP addresses. IPv6 is just beginning to be implemented today in Asia. With the inclusion of IPv6, Pocket PC 2003 can support mixed IPv4 (current) and IPv6 (future) networks.

Terminal Services Client: A tool bar has been added from which you can jump to one of the corners of the virtual desktop or to the center. This is a simple but very helpful addition, given the limited real estate of the Pocket PC's quarter-VGA screen.

What's missing for enterprise? Very little!


Pocket PC 2003 is available in two configurations, called the Professional and Premium Editions. The latter includes Microsoft Reader, Terminal Services Client and Pictures. Typically the Premium Edition is offered on Pocket PCs with 32 MB or more of ROM, while the Professional Edition is offered on Pockets PCs with 16 MB of ROM.

Also available is the Plus! Digital Media Edition (DME) Pack ($20 street). This add-on software allows you to play back PhotoStory files using Windows Media Player. PhotoStory allows users to create custom slideshows with panning, zooming, titles, credits, narration and background music. The audio and video content of the slideshows can then be updated via synchronization. The Plus! DME Pack also includes Plus! Sync & Go, a feature that makes it easy to synchronize desktop music and video playlists with the Pocket PC, as well as synchronize information directly from providers such as MSNBC, USA Today, CBS MarketWatch, NPR and Comedy Central.

The Pocket PC Phone Edition (which isn't actually shipping yet) includes the following new or improved features for voice-and-data devices:

  • GSM/GPRS & CDMA support, including suspend & resume
  • Scheduled synchronization with Exchange Server 2003
  • Enhanced SMS and MMS support
  • WAP support
  • Direct caller ID
  • Call forwarding and call barring
  • Easily accessible phone dialer
  • Speed dialing
  • Speaker phone capability
  • Separate ring and voice volume controls
  • WAV, MIDI or Windows Media file ring tones
  • Call log
  • Call notifications
The first two bullets above provide a significantly improved wide-area wireless experience. The GPRS suspend and resume feature allows a GPRS-enabled Pocket PC to stay connected all day ("persistent connectivity"), even if the device is powered off during part of the day. It automatically reconnects if it's disconnected. This improved connectivity allows the Pocket PC to function somewhat like a RIM Blackberry device. Email can be configured (for example) to synchronize with a Microsoft Exchange Server mailbox through Server ActiveSync every five minutes during peak time. The Pocket PC can be set to vibrate whenever new mail arrives. During off-peak, synchronization can be set to a much lower frequency, such as once per hour. If you want to decrease the amount of amount of data that's sent to the Pocket PC, not only the synchronization frequency but also the amount of each email message that's synchronized to the device can be reduced (by default, the first 500 bytes of each email message are downloaded).


Pocket PC 2003 is generally backward compatible for existing Pocket PC 2000 and 2002 applications. However, because of the change of the underlying OS from CE 3.0 to CE 4.2, not all existing applications will run. An unofficial but often-updated list of 175 tested Pocket PC applications can be found at http://www.manueldelatorre.com/ ppc2003/index.asp. Of course, if you want to take advantage of new functions such as IPv6 or the zero configuration wireless, you need new drivers and/or new applications. However, software designed and optimized for Pocket PC 2003 will not be compatible with older Pocket PCs.

Microsoft offers a database conversion wizard for Pocket PC 2003 on the Windows Mobile PowerToys website (see http://www.microsoft. com/windowsmobile/resources/downloads/pocketpc/powertoys.mspx) that could save you a little grief. Of the nine other downloads available on this site, one of the more interesting ones is "Remote Display Control". This utility allows you to display actions on a Pocket PC, including user input, on the display of a desktop or laptop PC. This is very useful for demonstrating Pocket PC applications to a large audience.


In August 2003, the PDA Gold website reported the results of upgrading a 400 MHz Compaq iPAQ h3970 from Pocket PC 2002 to Pocket PC 2003 [click here to see]. Before-and-after benchmarks were run using the Spb Benchmark program, with the following results:

Spb Benchmark Test 2003 Speed Increase
Benchmark Index (system) 15%
CPU Index 51%
File System Index -22%
Graphics Index 37%
Active Sync Index (USB 1.1) 38%
Platform Index (user view) 39%

Overall, Pocket PC 2003 definitely provides a performance boost over Pocket PC 2002. According to the tester, the final value of 39% seems to be a realistic assessment of the overall performance increase he sees. The File System Index result may be an anomaly, since it is the result of a single test: displaying the contents of a folder with 2,000 files.

Roughly similar results were reported by the Pocket PC Thoughts website, using a 206 MHz Compaq iPAQ 3650 [click here to see].


All Pocket PC 2002 devices are technically upgradeable to Pocket PC 2003, but it's actually up to the individual OEM whether they will choose to offer an upgrade. (See http://www.petitiononline.com/e300e740/petition.html for an interesting petition about the lack of upgrades for certain Toshiba models.) Original Pocket PC 2000 devices cannot be upgraded to 2003.

Typical upgrade prices are in the range of $30 (Dell and HP) to $50 (Toshiba). If you purchased certain Pocket PC 2002 models between May 23 and September 23, Microsoft and some of the OEMs are cooperating on a "Technology Guarantee Program" which provides an upgrade for only $16.

Should you upgrade your current Pocket PC device? If you're a heavy wireless user, an enterprise user looking for better security, or a multimedia enthusiast who wants an improved mobile experience, then you should definitely upgrade. If you're a traditional PDA/PIM user who's happy with the current functionality of your Pocket PC 2002 device, then there's no compelling reason to upgrade, other than possibly the improved performance.


Pocket PC 2002 (launched in Fall 2001) was built on top of Windows CE 3.0 (launched in Fall 2000), which after three years in the marketplace was getting rather old. Pocket PC 2003 (launched in Summer 2003) is built on top of Windows CE .Net 4.2 (launched in Spring 2003). The extensive differences between CE 3.0 and CE 4.0 were detailed in an article in the April 2002 issue of Pen Computing (see http://www.pencomputing.com/ WinCE/dotnet.html). The minor enhancements in versions 4.1 and 4.2 included IPv6, L2TP/IPSec, IE6, file viewers, speech API and improved performance.

By the way, Pocket PC 2002 and 2003 have exactly the same minimum hardware requirements. They both support only ARM CPUs and portrait-mode quarter-VGA (240 x 320) screens. Windows CE 4.2, on the other hand, supports a wide range of CPUs and screen resolutions.

All of the improvements between CE 3.0 and 4.2 can be generalized as (1) enabling new user functionality, (2) improving performance, or (3) keeping up with hardware, software and communications technology. Without all three of these factors, developers won't write new applications for Pocket PC, and users won't keep buying new hardware and software. Keeping the Pocket PC's underlying OS up to date is as necessary as putting gas in your car.

One interesting side effect of Microsoft's waiting so long to update the underlying OS is the mismatch it created between systems and peripherals. Many vertical market devices are built with Windows CE rather than Pocket PC - for example, Casio's rugged handheld terminals [click here to see], many of which use CE 4. But handheld peripheral manufacturers are driven mostly by the much larger Pocket PC market, which until just a few months ago was stuck on CE 3. Casio users searching for peripherals such as video projection interfaces therefore found nothing available, since essentially all of the peripherals were designed to support only CE 3. Now that Microsoft has finally updated Pocket PC, the logjam is broken and peripherals are beginning to be available for CE 4. Hopefully Microsoft won't wait so long again to update the underlying OS in the next version of Pocket PC (2004, code-named Magneto).


Microsoft .Net Compact Framework: The most important feature for developers is the inclusion of the .Net Compact Framework in ROM. The .Net Compact Framework allows developers to create Pocket PC applications using exactly the same tools and development environment that they use to create desktop applications. Specifically, that means Visual Basic .Net and Visual C# .Net (for managed code applications), using Visual Studio .Net and the Pocket PC 2003 Software Development Kit (SDK). Native code applications can still be developed using eMbedded Visual C++ 4.0. The ".Net" aspect simply means that developers can incorporate native XML Web services in their applications easily and efficiently.

Windows CE 4.2: The use of Windows CE 4.2 as the underlying OS provides a very extensive set of capabilities upon which developers can draw. The relative maturity of CE 4.2 also adds stability and reliability to the development platform.

Improved Emulator: The Pocket PC 2003 SDK emulation environment is now a true virtual computer. It can emulate Pocket PC 2003, as well as Pocket PC Phone Edition 2003 with external or virtual radios. The Virtual Radio emulator lets developers send SMS messages that appear to come from an actual radio network.

Remote Configuration: Configuration of the Pocket PC 2003 Phone Edition can be handled over-the-air (OTA, wirelessly) via WAP push transmission mechanisms and security methods.


When you switch on a new Pocket PC and see "Windows Mobile 2003 for the Pocket PC" for the first time, everything will look very familiar. For example, you'll see the same Today screen (with a minor enhancement) and the same built-in applications. As you look a little closer, you'll discover the top three significant enhancements: (1) greatly improved support for wireless (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and wide-area), (2) an up-to-date Pocket Internet Explorer that's compatible with IE 6.0 and a whole lot faster, and (3) improved multimedia support through Windows Media Player 9 Series. Other than that, there is a variety of little improvements here and there on the user level. Under the hood, things are very different - the underlying OS is now the latest version of Windows CE (4.2), which makes Pocket PC 2003 even better for enterprise applications. If your current Pocket PC can be upgraded to 2003, go for it - it's probably worth it for the improved performance, if nothing else. If your current Pocket PC can't be upgraded to 2003, there may not be enough new in 2003 to justify buying a new one unless one or more of the top three significant enhancements really hits your hot button. -

Based in Silicon Valley, Geoff Walker is a consultant with Walker Mobile, LLC. Geoff has worked on the engineering and marketing of mobile computers since 1982 at GRiD Systems, Fujitsu Personal Systems (now Fujitsu PC) and Handspring. He can be contacted at geoff.walker@att.net.