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Pocket PC 2002

Microsoft enhances Pocket PC, provides direction for the future

By Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, Editor-in-Chief, Pen Computing Magazine

Codenamed "Merlin," Pocket PC 2002 is the latest version of the Pocket PC operating system. Like its predecessor, the original Pocket PC platform, it is sitting on top of standard Windows CE 3.0. Those who expected to see a rumored next version of the core Windows CE OS will have to wait a bit longer.

Pocket PC 2002 is sort of hard to define. Rather than a totally new and different OS, it is really a grab-bag of bug fixes, interface enhancements and fine-tuning, rewriting of some of the major Pocket PC applications, and the announcement of a variety of ancillary services and tools all meant to enhance the Pocket PC's value and stature as an increasingly valuable part of the enterprise. Pocket PC 2002 itself, doesn't look and feel that much different from the earlier version. In terms of functionality, it's a bit like comparing Windows 98 to Windows ME: same OS plus some nice extras. In terms of looks, it's like comparing Windows ME to Windows XP: those nice extras plus a neat new look.

When I attended a recent two-day "Mobility Technical Forum" in Seattle where Microsoft revealed Pocket PC 2002 and a few other upcoming technologies and announcements, it was clear that something had changed. Gone was the defensive and at times apologetic stance about Palm's dominance of the PDA market. Instead, given the recent appearance of substantial weaknesses in Palm armor, the Microsoft presenters were brimming with confidence. In the past, Microsoft had apologized for Windows CE sort of looking like a mini version of desktop Windows. Buoyed by the two million Pocket PCs sold worldwide and a 235% year-to-year growth in sales, Microsoft now boasts that users want their mobile device be more than just an organizer. The Pocket PC's relative complexity compared to the Palm OS is now portrayed as an asset rather than a liability. The trend to simplify and streamline has been reversed by an effort to pack as much punch and as many features as possible into the little devices. To underline that, Pocket PC borrows many visual cues from Windows XP. Palm once insisted the press call its devices "connected organizers" rather than PDAs or little PCs. Microsoft's new message is the opposite: Pocket PCs are definitely not just bare-bones organizer; they are full-featured extensions of the desktop, and more.

But let's take a look at what is new and different about Pocket PC 2002. It can be summarized as follows:

  • A) Pocket PC 2002 has different hardware requirements
  • B) Pocket PC 2002 has a different look and finetuned/enhanced apps
  • C) Pocket PC 2002 beefs up security and connectivity

New Hardware Requirements

Microsoft has a long history of providing more or less firm guidelines as to the hardware requirements for devices that run its software. When Windows CE was released in the Fall of 1996, one of the most unexpected parts of the hardware guidelines was the support of different processor families. As a result, we saw Windows CE devices built on various implementations of the MIPS, SH, ARM, and X86 architectures. Microsoft's development tools included compilers for each architecture, and software came with "cabs" (Cabinet files that contain compressed system and application files) for all supported chip architectures. Benchmark tests showed that each of those processor families had different strengths and thus allowed vendors to pick the processor best suited for the personality and purpose of a particular device. It also fostered competition among processor manufacturers gunning for design wins. Well, Pocket PC 2002 has changed all that as it will drop support of the MIPS, SH, and X86 architectures and mandate the use of an ARM core, i.e. the SA1110 "StrongARM," and the ARM72xT and ARM92xT. ARM processors are made by Intel, Motorola, Texas Instruments, and ARM itself, but you can safely assume that there will be an emphasis on the Intel StrongARM and Intel's upcoming Xscale architecture. Microsoft also specifies a variety of other requirements:

  1. Minimum clockspeed of 100MHz for a generic device and 200-250MHz for a multimedia device
  2. A minimum of 16MB of RAM with 32MB of SDRAM recommended
  3. A minimum of 16MB of onboard Flash for standard devices and 24MB for wireless-enabled devices.
  4. 8, 12, or 16-bit color support or 2 or 4-bit grayscale support
  5. 240x320 screen format
  6. dot pitch of .216 or .24 millimeters, resulting in either 3.5 or 3.8-inch diagonal displays
  7. USB and SIR
  8. MMC, SD, or CD card expansion, or a combination thereof
  9. 16-bit stereo DAC (digital to analog) with a minimum 13-bit ADC (analog to digital)
  10. Grayscale devices must have 15 hours battery life at 30% de-rated CPU load
  11. Color devices must have 8 hours battery life at 30% de-rated CPU load
  12. RAM must be preserved at least 30 minutes without main battery
  13. RAM must be retained at least 72 hours (and preferably 168 hours) after low battery shutdown
  14. Microphone and speaker with standard 2.5 or 3.5mm mini plugs
  15. Full duplex recording and playback
Of all these requirements, only two are really noteworthy: the already mentioned switch to a single processor architecture strategy and the move to Flash instead of read-only ROM. Flash means that a) devices will be field-upgradeable when software patches and additions become available, and b) it will be possible to save user data in non-volatile storage. This is extremely relevant as anyone who has lost all data and RAM-installed applications as a result of a dead battery can attest. The data loss issue is also addressed with the more stringent battery life and RAM preservation requirements upon low-power shutdown.

What does it all mean? Everyone who does not have an ARM-based device will have to introduce one (thus obsoleting a lot of great existing hardware). Everyone will have to provide onboard Flash which, again, means that those who don't have it must come up with new designs. Finally, there's definitely a greater emphasis on battery life and we'll see some changes as a result of that.

Pocket PC 2002: Big picture

As mentioned, Pocket PC 2002 is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Microsoft's goals were to fix a number of glitches and also implement the most urgent customer requests (30 in all, mostly relating to enterprise needs). The overall vision with the interface was to keep what worked and fix what didn't. As a result, Pocket PC 2002 cuts down on excessive dialog and option boxes, replacing them with text. The implementation rationale of all this isn't quite obvious. The Palm-size PC's 3D look that had been ditched in favor of a "flatter" look in the initial Pocket PC is back in full bloom, with colorful 3D icons and even a number of new ones in the top nav bar. In the same respect, some of the old icons have been replaced with menu items. Finally, there are Macintosh-like "notification bubbles" that alert of certain activities. The result is certainly pretty, but it doesn't represent a milestone improvement in usability. Among the most voiced user requests were:
  • Listing of contacts by company
  • Multi-folder sync
  • More solid USB connectivity
  • Terminal services client
  • Show meeting attendees
  • Palm compatibility via IR
  • Desktop pass-through
  • Easily manageable skins for the Today screen
  • A better Inbox
  • A better Connection Manager
  • MSN Messenger
  • Hooks for virus protection
  • VPN (Virtual Private Networks)
All of the above, and more, have been implemented in Pocket PC 2002.

Look at new features and changes:

Interface:

Skins are now much easier to manage. You simply pick one from the new "Appearance" tab in the Today settings screen. You can even create your own.

A longstanding complaint about the Palm-size/Pocket PC was that it had no escape key and no way to terminate applications (unless you went into the Memory control panel and specifically stopped them). In Pocket PC 2002, each application has an "x" box on the upper right on the Nav bar. Clicking it removes the app from view and brings up the one used before that. Clicking "x" doesn't actually exit the application, though. That you still have to do manually in the Memory panel. However, while the original Pocket PC kept opening apps until you ran into memory problems, PPC 2002 will close apps when memory gets low. Microsoft also says that applications are now cached so that they pop up quicker. Contacts can be viewed by name or company via a "View" menu. Still no user-definable sorting though.

A nifty select animation (red dots forming a circle) shows that your tap and hold has been recognized. It's nice but I could live without it.

Almost all icons have been redesigned to comply with the XP look. A definite improvement.

I should mention the improved navbar icons on top. Tapping on the speaker icon brings up a volume adjustment balloon. Tapping on the time icon shows the full date and the next appointment. Tap and hold lets you select between a digital and an analog clock. The Nav bar also shows new MSN Messenger alerts and various reminders and alerts such as new email.

Security and Connectivity:

Most of these changes are geared towards corporate users and enterprise requirements.

Virtual Private Network support means that you can now access corporate data remotely over public wireless links. Updateable ROMs fights obsolescence and also allows for customization and bulk upgrades.

Password security is greatly enhanced. Instead of the old 4-digit PIN, you can now assign a complex password.

The new Terminal Services Client provides a (small 240 x 320) view of the server desktop so that you have remote access to any Win32 application via your Pocket PC. Virus protection APIs allow for the development of anti-virus software (forewarned is forearmed!).

Universal beaming is now possible (more or less) via the industry standard OBEX protocol. Beaming back and forth with Palms could indeed be a great thing. As is, our review unit immediately identified a Palm by its name and managed to send and receive contacts (It did not work under Palm OS4). It could also send a Word document, but the Palm did not recognize it.

A new desktop pass-through feature allows for direct-to-server access for synchronization and connectivity. It also means that you can browse the web directly on a Pocket PC during an ActiveSync session with a desktop PC or server that is connected to the Internet.

The File Explorer has been enhanced to show network file shares and one-tap access to storage cards.

There is a new Connection Manager that is meant to make setting up connections easier. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to figure out. This needs fixing!

The ActiveSync app is now in the main menu and no longer in the Connections folder. It now includes the previously separate IR ActiveSync and also includes server sync.

Applications:

Compared to the radical changes and all the new software that accompanied the introduction of the original Pocket PC, the changes in PPC 2002 are relatively minor.

The Transcriber printed and cursive handwriting recoognition engine is now in ROM and has been improved via some bug fixes, updated libraries and an updated dictionary. There will also be a second version of Transcriber that seems to be sort of a cross between CalliGrapher and the advanced recognizer slated for Microsoft's Tablet PC. That one has a larger memory footprint, a more extensive user interface, and supposedly better recognition yet. We are not sure whether third party recognizers can co-exist with the now ROM-ed Transcriber and we have no info yet on the pricing for the upscale recognizer.

The old "Character Recognizer" has been renamed to "Letter Recognizer" and an all-new "Block Recognizer" has been added. Let's just say that if you know Graffiti, you'll be immediately familiar with the Block Recognizer.

The MSN Messenger application for Pocket PC 2002 is pretty sophisticated. You can select auto logon whenever the device detects a connection. If you have a list of Contacts, they show up as they do on a standard desktop. You can invite others to a conversation, view all participants in a chat, and even send a quick email to a chat buddy. There is multiple chat support, privacy control, editable canned text replies, and other familiar features. If you leave chat and work in another PPC 2002 application, the NavBar will pop up a notification bubble if someone tries to add you to their contact list. You can then accept or reject. All in all, MSN Messenger on the PPC is similar to the desktop. MSN Messenger also supports Passport and Exchange user accounts.

Pocket Word and Excel are virtually unchanged. Word now has a rudimentary spellcheck feature. It offers alternate spellings and lets you add new words to the dictionary, but you can't correct words on the fly, which renders the far less useful than it could be. In Excel you now get a context menu when you tap and hold on a cell. It's similar to what a right mouse click does in desktop Windows.

Internet Explorer, which Microsoft views as the world's most sophisticated handheld browser, now supports more standards, including HTML 3.2, cHTML, JScript 1.1, Clinet-Side XML/XSL, ActiveX, and WAP 1.2.1 (but not Java which was casually dismissed as a "last generation tool"). There is also DIV and SPAN tag support, but if you're looking for CSS support you're out of luck. The welcome screen is new, and downloads are speedier because you can selectively turn on or off graphics support. Before, graphics were either on or off. The browser works well, but despite its relative completeness, viewing the web through a tiny 240 x 320 pixel window and with all the performance limitations of a PDA will never be the same as what you get on the big display on your notebook or desktop.

Though it looks the same, Microsoft says that the Inbox has been entirely rewritten. My personal favorite new features are immediate notification of the total number of messages to be downloaded (it's good to know whether it's three or 300 if you have five minutes and a CDPD connection). I also like the new "My Text" feature that let's you insert canned sentences into a message. The Inbox now also includes a spellchecker, the ability to change languages, and generally much better organized menus. There is support for embedded HTML and IMAP4 synchronization support for user-defined folders. Microsoft also praises a new autoconfiguration of ISP settings, but I find it rather confusing. Finally, IE now lets you download some applications, such as ebooks, directly into the device.

Reader also has received an extensive overhaul. Version 2.0 builds on the strengths of 1.0 but adds a much better user interface. The look and feel is more standard Windows and you can generally do a lot more via menus. Graphics support is dramatically enhanced and there is now support for HTML tables and CSS. 2.0 also has external hypertext linking, multiple dictionary support, better audio with more standard controls and bookmarks, and a much better help feature. The ClearText technology was always good and thus wasn't changed (in fact, it will be used outside of Reader in other text-intensive areas). Reading books itself is pretty much unchanged, with uncluttered pages and menus/pop-ups that remain invisible until they are called. 2.0 adds "riffle control," a new navigation aid that shows you in bar form how many pages the entire book has and where you currently are. You can also drag a slider to quickly go to a different part of a book. Reader 2.0 has Owner-Exclusive DRM Level 5 support, basically a means to implement digital rights management. Level 5 means secure encription that requires activation to identify you as the owner. Activation enables you to move and read titles on up to four different devices. I don't know if I like all those locks and keys, but I suppose they are necessary to keep piracy at bay. Microsoft will also make available an industrial strength SDK for generating Reader .lit files. Quark, incidentally, has made available a plug-in for Xpress for easy creation of .lit files from standard Quark files.

The Windows Media Player received an equally impressive overhaul. Version 8 has a new look and generally includes a lot of the enhancements the digital media industry has come up with since the original Media Player. As a result, the new Player can handle streaming audio and video files (though wireless streaming video really is still a ways away), there is full-screen display both in landscape and cropped-to-fit portrait mode, more extensive format support, streaming media "favorites," skins, and button mapping that won't affect other applications. Unlike the old player that could only find media files in specific locations, the new player will find it anywhere on the device or a storage card. I should also mention that the Movie Maker application has a special setting to save and encode vidcaps for Pocket PC. As was the case before, the new Player supports both MP3 and Microsoft's own and more compact WMA format. Needless to say, playback is limited to hardware capabilities. At this point, you can get up to 20 frames per second and up to 160kps at a width of 240 pixels.

On the PIM side there's the already mentioned viewing of contacts by company, a more logical order of contacts fields, switching between vies in Calendar is now via icons, and you can see meeting attendees in the Calendar.

There is already some great third party software running on Pocket PC 2002. The new HP Jornada 565, for example, shows how you can backup selective user data into non-volatile storage. The HP also comes with a terrific HP ImageViewer that can easily handle even very large files. I stuck, for example, a 128MB Compact Flash card from my Nikon CoolPix 990 digital camera into the Jornada 565 and the ImageViewer had no problems at all with the big images from the 3.3 megapixel Nikon. It displayed them at either at full size or at various degrees of zoom. In full size, you can either pan the image around or drag a small rectangle over the part of the image you want to see. Combined with Hewlett Packard's optional Compact Flash-based digital camera attachment, or even as a complement/viewer for a digicam, this could be a terrific solution for many professionals.

Conclusions

Pocket PC 2002 is a bit of an enigma. It isn't the typical "next rev" of an operating system. Instead, the overall term "Pocket PC 2002" incorporates new hardware requirements, software enhancements and changes, bug fixes, and a general move towards meeting more of corporate customers's needs.

Still, whereas new revs often represent the proverbial "three steps forward and two steps backward," all of Pocket PC 2002 points in the right direction. The hardware requirements will bring faster and more practical devices (albeit at the cost of some angry consumers who will not be able to upgrade anything but Compaq iPAQ devices, and perhaps some slightly disgruntled OEMs who see their perfectly good current products obsoleted). The software fixes and enhancements are all for the better, with the exception of the needlessly convoluted Connection Manager.

With Pocket PC 2002, Microsoft has taken the next step, and made some very conscious decisions, towards attracting customers (and not just corporate customers) in a world still dominated by Palm OS devices.

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, September 6, 2001