Microsoft tries to Pocket the handheld market

Microsoft Corp. might already have won the desktop war, but the landscape of computing is changing, and so the software giant has set its sites on a new horizon – the handheld market.

But here, the giant is only the little guy – dwarfed by Palm Inc.’s strong hold and dedicated following.

Even at the launch of Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft’s Pocket PC, which was held at New York City’s Grand Central Station, there was at least one reporter who was taking notes on his Palm device as Microsoft president and CEO lauded the merits of the company’s newest handheld solution.

But the handheld market is picking up steam – it is expected to grow from 4 million to 6 million devices this year – and Microsoft is determined to jump on the train.

“The opportunities in this space are really just before us,” Ballmer said in a keynote address at the launch. “This area is going to explode.”

The Pocket PC boasts a great number of applications – including an MP3 player that supports Windows Media Player; Pocket Word; a full Internet browser that dynamically resizes Web sites to facilitate viewing on small form factors; an e-book reader; and even Pac Man. The Palm device looks almost ascetic in comparison.

“We built the devices to allow for expandability, flexibility, new applications, custom applications, new hardware. It can carry some of the best features of the desktop PC, given expandability,” Ballmer said. The Pocket PC operating system is available in four separate devices manufactured by Hewlett-Packard, Casio, Compaq and Siemens.

Ballmer also stressed the fact that the Pocket PC has a built-in browser, and that users “can access absolutely any Web site.”

Asked whether users will have the patience to download entire pages over low bandwidth connections, Microsoft group product manager for the Windows CE Product Group, Phil Holden, said, “Speed is very relative. It depends on what you need. If you need to go get the latest information, a minute is totally acceptable. Because otherwise you have to jump in a car or jump in a plane and…find a PC.”

But Palm Canada Inc.’s president and general manager Michael Moskowitz in Mississauga, Ont., doesn’t think this is what handheld users are after.

Palm feels that users are better served by sites designed specifically for small form factors and offers its users a Web clipping service.

“I think our whole philosophy is to offer users choice. If you want to browse the Internet wirelessly, then go ahead. But that’s not what users want,” Moskowitz said.

Although Palm licenses the Palm OS to other OEMs to give consumers more choice, its own devices are decidedly paired down in comparison to the Pocket PC. Only the Palm IIIc has colour, for instance.

“We haven’t really tried to cram everything into the box,” Moskowitz said.

Microsoft’s approach is decidedly different.

“Our assertion – and you either believe this, or you don’t believe this – is that people want more than just than just the basic PIM (personal information manager). They don’t necessarily want to do new things, but they want to take the best of what they do on the desktop with them right now,” Holden said.

International Data Corp.’s senior research analyst for smart handheld devices, Jill House, thinks there might be something in Microsoft’s approach.

If consumers intend to buy a palm device, House hypothosized, they might be attracted to the extras available on the Pocket PC.

“8MB (for the Palm) vs. 16MB to 32MB (for the Pocket PC); no expansion, vs. expansion; no media vs. media; no audio vs. audio. Whether or not I use those feature – totally a mute point. I think with this device (the Pocket PC), somehow I feel safer, given that at the exact same price I feel like I’ve gotten more for my money,” House said. Traditionally, it has been workers, and not the companies themselves, that have bought handheld devices.

But when Husky Oil Ltd. in Calgary was looking for a solution for its maintenance repair and order system at its five remote warehouses, it wasn’t looking for all the bells and whistles. It turned to Abaco P.R. Inc., which built a solution using its Symbol Technologies’ Pocket PC device equipped with a barcode scanner, the PPT 2740.

“Using Abaco’s product, Varadero, we were able to develop (a solution) in one week. And that includes design, software coding, documentation, implementation and training for the staff. So it was a major success,” said Abaco’s vice-president of operations Armand Alciatore in Roswell, Ga.

Husky needed to access the inventory at its warehouses at an optimal level. And now whenever something is removed from a shelf, it is scanned and the information is automatically sent to a remote server.

“Because Varadero is a thin-client product operating on a Pocket PC, you’re able to make the changes to your code in your IT department at the server, and instantly these remote warehouses are updated,” Alciatore said.