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Thursday, 4 October, 2001, 09:24 GMT 10:24 UK
Microsoft puts the future in its Pocket
Ericsson's Bluetooth headset
Ericsson's Bluetooth headset makes it easier to get gadgets talking
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

With Pocket PC 2002, Microsoft's strategy for handheld computers is becoming clearer.

The changes made to the software reveal it is becoming less concerned about consumers and more interested in corporations.

The new version of the operating system makes it much easier to tie the portable computers into corporate networks, databases and the Microsoft programs companies are already using.

Also included are tools to make it easier to use the handhelds as remote controls for more powerful machines. Given Microsoft's larger .Net strategy this makes sense.

The idea behind .Net is to unify Microsoft's operating systems and programs so users can get access to the same information no matter what they use or where they are.

Often swapping files between the various incarnations of Windows has had more pain than pleasure about it.

With Pocket PC 2002, Microsoft has imposed minimum processor, memory, screen size, battery life and talktime requirements on those building Pocket PC handhelds. This means the devices stay expensive compared to those of rivals Palm, Handspring and Sony.

Shiny computers

However, some experts think that handheld devices will never be hugely popular for businesses.

Sony Clié
Sony's Clié: Company now aiming for consumer market
"If you look at the user base of handhelds, it tends to be consumers and white collar workers," said Simon Buckingham, founder of telecommunications consultancy Mobilestreams.

He said many owners of a Compaq Ipaq or an HP Jornada bought one for themselves, and only afterwards connected it to their office PC and started putting work data on it.

Few companies were throwing away laptops and equipping salesmen, field engineers and shop floor workers with shiny Pocket PCs, he said.

But even if businesses are not huge fans of handhelds they like them a lot more than consumers do. Currently consumers are entranced by mobile phones.

Market research firm EMC Database, which collects statistics on the telecommunications industry, estimates that there are over 780 million mobile phone users around the world, all of which have at least one handset.

Hybrid devices

Figures for total handheld users are hard to come by, but even the most optimistic estimates do not put them much higher than a few percent of the total number of mobile users.

The reason for this is simple. More people liked to talk to each other than wanted to carry around MP3 files, a contacts list, an electronic memo pad or play games on the move, said Mr Buckingham.

People wanting to get more out of their mobile were more likely to look for extras to add to their handset, or a smartphone, rather than swap it for an expensive handheld with a phone built-in, he said.

The Nokia music player
Nokia music player: Doubles as an earpiece for a phone
"People look stupid enough using a mobile phone as it is," he said. "They aren't going to want to hold a handheld to their head."

Currently, giants like Nokia (which recently released a music player for its phones) and Sony are targeting the consumer market. Sony is even rumoured to be considering using its Clié gadget as the foundation for the next walkman. The Clié uses the Palm operating system.

Developments like Bluetooth wireless networking technology also mean that it makes even less sense to roll every function into one device. In the near future, your handset could be happily talking to your handheld, letting you make the most out of their respective strengths without having to fork out for a hybrid device.

Wireless web

But if businesses are not enamoured of handheld computers now, they might be soon.

"Between 50 and 70% of the top-tier enterprises are looking at doing something with wireless," said Robin Abrams, president of Blue Kite, which makes software to help speed up the sending of data across wireless networks.

The "something" speaks volumes. Microsoft does not know exactly what businesses will do, and neither do the companies. It could mean replacing the cable spaghetti of data networks lurking under every desk with a wireless alternative.

It could mean companies starting to use higher speed mobile phone technologies, such as General Packet Radio Services, to make it easier for the few who are using handhelds to get messages and mail.

The high-speed networking abilities of future 3G phone networks are likely to prove attractive to companies when, and if, they are turned on.

It is this wireless future that Microsoft has an eye on with the release of Pocket PC 2002. It is acting now to gain a significant body of users in anticipation of mass acceptance by consumers.

The problem Microsoft is now confronting is that the future lies in someone else's hands.

See also:

13 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Sony holds up its palms
03 Oct 01 | Business
Racing to win the handheld prize
12 Jul 01 | Business
The battle of the handhelds
24 Sep 01 | dot life
Gadgets get fruity
23 Aug 01 | Business
Charting the rise of Nokia
11 Jul 01 | Business
Psion pulls out of handheld market
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