December 15, 2005
 

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Posted: 11.04

Is the Price Right?

Microsoft used the occasion of its third annual Mobile Developer Conference 2004 in March to unveil its new Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition software. Instead of waiting until 2005 to deliver a more feature-rich version, Microsoft opted, instead, to accelerate the usual release schedule.
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By Lee Sherman




While it falls somewhat short of the major revision many were hoping for, it adds several enhancements designed to foster increased hardware innovation and application development. By the time you read this, major handheld vendors such as Dell, HP and Motorola will have released new devices that take full advantage of these enhancements and provide increased functionality at ever-lower price points. But are these enhancements enough to justify outfitting your mobile workforce with new devices?

“The industry is changing so quickly, and the rapid pace of innovation from our partners demand an aggressive release cycle. We wanted to deliver the Second Edition early in 2004 so that we could enable exciting new devices before the end of the year, says Chris Hill, lead product manager of the Mobile and Embedded Devices Division of Microsoft. “The platform support for landscape orientation and higher resolution displays will not only enable new and unique Windows Mobile devices but also create new user experiences.”

Breaking the Mold

For all of their usefulness, it’s fair to say that devices running Windows Mobile have suffered from a certain cookie-cutter approach to the handheld. Historically, there has never been much difference between a Pocket PC from Dell and one from HP or Toshiba. That’s changed with Windows Mobile 2003 SE. The software now supports dynamic switching between landscape and portrait modes, a wider range of screen resolutions up to 640 x 480, square screens and the ability to include integrated keyboards. “Landscape support will enable everything from swivel-screen devices to devices that were designed to be used primarily in the landscape orientation,” Hill says. “Square screen support will encourage smaller devices, such as dedicated messaging devices with integrated keyboards.”

Driving this, says Alex Slawsby, an analyst with IDC, is the increased use of handheld computers for viewing content such as spreadsheets, Web pages and video. Wireless is another major focus of the new release, with Microsoft adding support for WPA for secure wireless connectivity, a native MMS client for the Smartphone edition of the software and additions such as replaceable ring tone plug-ins, configurable speed dial, home screen softkey customizability for Smartphone and speaker-dependent voice dialing extensibility for Pocket PC, designed to allow mobile operators more freedom to differentiate their product offerings.

New form factors will provide greater flexibility, but enterprises can be assured of compatibility with their existing applications. Microsoft has taken great pains to ensure that most applications will run unmodified on the new hardware. For example, applications not originally designed to run on a VGA screen can take advantage of pixel doubling, a software trick that allows them to be viewed at a higher resolution.

“From an enterprise standpoint, it is essential that there is clear backward compatibility with existing applications,” says Slawsby.

Microsoft’s approach differs from that taken by its competitor, palmSource, which has long provided licensees with access to its operating system source code and allowed them to make major modifications to the platform. Licensees who develop extensions to the platform are allowed to enjoy these features exclusively for a short time before they are eventually rolled into the base platform. While this has allowed for a wide variety of Palm-powered devices, from multimedia to communications to gaming, it has also led to confusion among users and made life hell for software developers who have to support all of these devices. In many cases, software developers must release hardware-specific versions for each application.

Microsoft was also careful to ensure that enterprise developers and ISVs wouldn’t have to learn anything new in order to take advantage of the new capabilities in Windows Mobile SE 2003. “In fact, there is no new SDK for Windows Mobile 2003 SE, since the APIs required to make applications orientation- and resolution-independent have always been
a part of Windows Mobile software,” says Hill. One key theme at the MDC was the need for a unified environment for all application development, whether the software is destined for the desktop, a PDA, a smartphone or the Web. “For example, .NET Compact Fraework is included in Windows Mobile 2003 software and beyond,” says Hill. “And, Windows Mobile is closely aligning with the next version of Visual Studio.”

Minor but still welcome features in Windows Mobile 2003 SE include a frequently used app list for switching among applications, new shortcuts
in Transcriber and, in Pocket Internet Explorer, the
ability to format text in a single, scrollable column for improved readability.

New Devices

Dell was the first out of the gate with new Axim handhelds running Windows Mobile 2003 SE. All three models of the Axim X30 adopt the same basic body design of the existing Axim and include 3.5-inch, 320 x 240 QVGA 16-bit color TFT displays, an SDIO-capable Secure Digital (SD) card slot, an IR port, a microphone and speaker, and a 950mAh battery. On the surface they appear to be little different from the previous generation of Axims, but each takes full advantage of a key feature of Windows Mobile SE 2003—the ability to rotate the screen from portrait to landscape, offering better value than its predecessors. The entry-level device has a 312MHz Intel XScale PXA270 processor, 32 MB of RAM and 32 MB of ROM. It comes with a sync cable, not a cradle, and sells for $199. The midrange model ups the storage to 64 MB of RAM and 64 MB of ROM, includes both Bluetooth and 802.11b Wi-Fi, also leaves out the cradle and sells for $249. The top of the range has a CPU running at 624 MHz, includes the sync cable and sells for $349.

At press time, Motorola had announced its MPx, a hybrid device with a dual-hinge that allows it to operate in both portrait and landscape mode. It has both a touchscreen that can be operated with a stylus and a full QWERTY thumb keyboard. The Motorola MPx hardware is unique in its blending of clamshell mobile phone, keyboarded messaging device and PDA, while the Windows Mobile 2003 SE software allows it to run standard Pocket PC applications for e-mail, Internet browsing, streaming video and access to corporate applications. It is a tri-band GSM/GPRS device that also includes built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and infrared. It has a 2.8-inch, 320 x 240 16-bit color TFT display, up to 1 GB of expandable memory, and an integrated 1.2-megapixel camera with Flash and Java technology. The price for all this advanced functionality should be around $699.

HP has yet to release details of its new handhelds, but online forums are buzzing with rumors of what is expected to be a complete refresh of the iPAQ product line and may include a model similar to the aforementioned Motorola MPx with GSM/GPRS/Wi-Fi/Bluetooth and Infrared, and a new top-of-line handheld with a 4-inch 640 x 480 inch (VGA) portrait and landscape display, 128 MB of RAM, 64 MB of ROM, both Compact Flash and SD slots and a unique touchpad navigation system in place of today’s D-Pad.

“These devices are being refined in terms of cost, size, features and aesthetics and are better positioned for the mass market than they’ve been in the past,” says Slawsby.•

Lee Sherman is a freelance technology writer based in the Bay Area.



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