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Winds of Change: Tanker Bob Opines on Long-term Changes in the PDA Market and Considers Moving from Palm to Pocket PC
Posted March 31, 2005 by Tanker Bob

Ever feel like Jed Clampett in the Beverly Hillbillies? He led a happy, peaceful existence until one day some Texas Tea bubbled into his world and opened a whole new and unexpected perspective. Tanker Bob had one of those epiphanies last week when a shiny Dell Axim X50v showed up on his doorstep.

You see, Tanker Bob became blissfully immersed in the Palm OS world seven years ago. Although I dabbled with WinCE devices, then Pocket PC, in retail outlets, I never took them seriously. They didn't efficiently meet my requirements at the time. But my requirements changed and the market had also changed. I hadn't noticed the latter until now.

Jeff Hawkins struck pay dirt in 1996 with his original Palm Pilot. It wasn't just the electronic Personal Information Management (PIM) aspect--that had been done before. I believe that the Palm Pilot's "instant on" operation, stability, and focused simplicity, combined with a sweet price point guaranteed success. The market couldn't get enough of them. But that was then.

Microsoft didn't cede such a lucrative market. They attempted to port their successful Windows 95 desktop operating system to a handheld format. However, Windows required substantial hardware resources and was plagued by chronic instability. Entire business empires grew to assist corporate Windows users cope with and master the beast. Porting the Windows behemoth to a handheld format proved an ambitious undertaking, although corporate giants like Casio, Compaq, HP, NEC, and Phillips took on the challenge. Four years later, only about 15% of the handheld market came along for the ride, and that mostly on the corporate side.

In the ensuing years, technology improved dramatically. Eventually, handheld hardware power equaled that of the desktops from only a few years prior. Windows itself improved in stability and reliability, and Microsoft acquired considerable experience porting it. Just as importantly, the market became more sophisticated. In the early Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) years, generally only corporate interests maintained networks. The Internet was primarily accessed via dial-up modems, and 56 Kbps modems constituted the height of luxury. Eventually, the 802.11 WiFi standards and the inexpensive hardware that followed fed an explosion in home networking. Broadband has become ubiquitous, with free or for-fee WiFi proliferating to cafes, bookstores, hotels, et al. The Internet no longer just lives in wires, but literally fills the air around us.

As Tanker Bob surveys the landscape with spring rolling in on 2005, he sees that the winds of change have blown in a new tide. The market for simple PIM devices is being seriously eroded. Growing numbers of customers expect high video and audio quality, transparent access to their desktop data, on-the-road email access, network connectivity, and a quality Internet experience in their hands-in short, a laptop in their pocket. The OS that created the PDA market a decade ago has proven poorly suited for many of the new complexities. In contrast, the formerly unwieldy OS has matured and stands well-suited to fill the requirements of the new, more demanding market.

Palm hasn't slept through this, but nor have they embraced it. While most PalmOne devices ship with Bluetooth, about all you can really do with it is transfer files with other Palms and WinXP SP 2 desktops. Only one PalmOne PDA sports internal WiFi, and that an older model. Palm offers a nice add-on SDIO WiFi card, but it takes the only card slot thereby precluding downloading files other than native Palm files. No Palm OS device has native network access, and add-on solutions don't come cheap. The newest PalmOne flagship, the Tungsten T|5, offers little capability over its predecessor. The winds are blowing the Palm ship towards the rocks, yet the sails seem to remain furled.

My new experiences with Windows Mobile 2003 and the new Axim clearly speak to the eminent superiority of this platform in the early 21st century. Microsoft has historically been most successful when they anticipated the future, persisting through initial difficulties to master a new approach in time for the hardware and market forces to ripen. I've come to believe that the latest crop of 624MHz VGA, WiFi, and Bluetooth-equipped PDA's from Dell and HP, and the Asus at 520MHz, combined with Windows Mobile 2003 represent the fruition of a dream that once seemed ill-conceived. Networking works effortlessly, video quality will water your eyes, and their broadband Internet experience over WiFi differs from the desktop experience only in size. And if you use Windows on your desktop, you can use these pretty much out of the box.

But that doesn't mean that the Palm platform is done. There will always remain a part of the market that craves a simple electronic PIM device. Add-on software, hardware, and some user effort/saavy can bring a PalmOne device enticingly close to 21st century standards. The possibility of a Linux-based Palm OS looms large in the rumor mills. That would provide the networking core needed to compete in the new environment. But that's just rumor at the moment. In the meantime, its market share continues to decline steadily. It's time to unfurl and man the sails on their corporate ship, because the winds of change wait for no company…and the rocks won't move.

Next: Read Part 1 of Tanker Bob's In-Depth Look at Switching from Palm to Pocket PC


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