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June 12, 2009

Palm and Windows Mobile and how the iPhone really changed everything

With all the hoopla over the much anticipated release of the Palm Pre in early June of 2009, I thought about the ever-changing fortunes of the mobile platforms in our industry.

Disregarding some smaller players and initiatives, here's the big picture: In 1993, the Apple Newton made news when then Apple CEO John Sculley pushed it hard and predicted that such devices and their infrastructure would one day be a trillion dollar industry. Sculley was scorned for that remark, as was the Newton for its various shortcomings. But the Newton, way ahead of its time, was still good enough to get Microsoft to respond with its own mobile platform, just as a few years prior Microsoft had responded when pen computing with its PenPoint operating system threatened to compete with Windows.

So Windows CE was introduced in 1996, together with a lineup of little clamshells handhelds. The same year, Palm Computing released the little Palm Pilot that no one thought was going to be successful because it neither had a keyboard (considered mandatory after the Newton handwriting recognition fiasco) nor an expansion slot. But much to everyone's surprise, the Palm Pilot took off while Windows CE devices quickly garnered a reputation for being clumsy and underpowered.

Microsoft's approach was to reluctantly add features and gradually allowing more powerful hardware, always concerned that devices might eat into the much more lucrative low-end notebook market, just as they are now worried about netbooks. Microsoft's hardware partners played along and came up with some amazingly innovative devices (yes, you could get a Windows CE-based "netbook" with a 10-inch display and 800 x 600 resolution ten years ago), but even that didn't work against Palm, which sold handhelds by the millions and adeptly crafted a "Palm economy" and thriving developer community that quickly dwarfed Microsoft's tentative and fragmented efforts.

At some point, Microsoft had the chutzpah to steal from Palm by trying to launch a handheld platform called the "Palm PC," but Palm's lawyers quickly nixed that, and their ho-hum handheld PC platform went nowhere. In a last ditch attempt, Microsoft nuked its multiple processor architecture approach around the turn of the millennium and tried again with the "Pocket PC," a markedly improved platform that has survived, in almost unchanged form, to this day.

Palm, in the meantime, thrived and reached a 75% global marketshare. When I gave a keynote presentation at the Taipei International Convention Center in 2001 on the future of pen computing and PDAs, I noted that Palm's OS was aging and Windows CE was gaining market share and might catch Palm within four or five years, but no one really believed that. Yet, it happened in a remarkable, unlikely succession of events that saw Palm fumble its leading position away and sink into virtual irrelevance while Microsoft, hardly more adept with its own mobile efforts repositioned Windows CE as, essentially, an embedded platform for the vertical market.

That approach, while it made sense, wasn't actually one that I thought was automatically going to be successful. In the late 1990s, Symbol Technologies, now part of Motorola, had been one of the first to adopt non-proprietary operating systems into its products. At some point, they offered both a Palm OS product and a very similar one powered by Windows CE, and at the time we were told that the Palm device did far better. Yet, Symbol was one of the very few vertical market companies that chose Palm, whereas Microsoft was remarkably successful in quietly positioning Windows CE as sort of a low-cost subset of Windows that would leverage corporate IT expertise and investments.

So while a lot of people wondered why Microsoft couldn't do any better in the mobile space, it was probably because they didn't want to. In 2002 I reviewed the T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone, an early smartphone that was amazingly good and would still fit right into the smartphone landscape of today, both in terms of looks and performance. Yet, not much happened after that. HP pretty much gambled away the "iPAQ" brand that came into its possession when they took over Compaq. Taiwanese and Korean companies became the new driving force, with the likes of HTC and Samsung settings trends and directions. And somehow the notion took hold that every handheld had to be a phone, which, in the US at least, meant being forced into overpriced 2-year contracts with telcos that couldn't care less about anything other than profit.

The reason why Windows CE became so successful is not because it's so good. It's a nice workmanlike effort, to be sure, but it's clumsy, sluggish and about as agile as a riverboat. But it only took over because a) the proprietary computing platforms of earlier handhelds were no longer acceptable, b) Palm let it by self-destructing, and c) because IT uses Windows and Windows CE sort of fits in. So there. It works, but it's ugly, really ugly.

It took Apple with the iPhone to demonstrate just how ugly Windows CE was. Unlike the Newton, the iPhone was right from the start, and it totally redefined how a mobile device should work. Its effortless elegance is exactly what people want, and Apple made it look natural and easy. The iPhone is human interface engineering at its very best. It may not meet all the IT-mandated checkmarks (yet) and thus earned the stern finger-wagging from some corporate types, but even they probably have an iPhone in their pockets. Once you know how simply and beautifully things can work, you never want to go back.

In a sense it's deja-vue all over again. Apple has a better product and a better idea, but Microsoft still dominates the desktop. Palm, back from the pretty-much-dead, tries again with a slick little box, just like the Palm Pilot once was, only this time they're copying Apple. The question in my mind is how long even workers and industrial users are willing to put up with klutzy, clumsy Windows CE now that almost everyone knows how well handheld electronics can work.

Posted by conradb212 at June 12, 2009 04:27 PM

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