- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2000

There's about to be a sea change I believe in the hand-held computing field, when some new products arrive soon that will draw a bead on Palm Computing's popular hand-held platform.

Due April 19 is Microsoft Corp.'s Pocket PC platform, a new revision of Windows CE that adds a better Microsoft Outlook in-box as well as revised pocket versions of Microsoft Word and Excel, a pair of programs which Microsoft claims creates the most functional and flexible office companion ever delivered on a personal digital assistant (PDA).

During a recent demonstration, Phil Holden, a group product manager for Microsoft, suggested that by offering more robust versions of these office applications, the hand-held device will be useful for more than merely PDA functions.

The software is expected to be available on devices from Casio, Inc., Hewlett Packard Corp., and Compaq Computer Corp. None of these manufacturers have publicly announced new machines as yet.

Conceding that Microsoft will need to first integrate with and then convert many current Palm users, Mr. Holden claimed many of the new devices will outperform the just-released Palm IIIc, which incorporates color into its display.

Under high usage, Mr. Holden said, the Palm IIIc requires 1.2 watts, while the Pocket PC devices he has seen will use less wattage. He said Casio was claiming a 25-hour battery life for the color versions of its new device and 80 hours for monochrome.

Also, Mr. Holden said, some manufacturers will bring out color hand-helds with reflective screens that can be more easily read in direct sunlight, something that is presently a challenge for users of the Palm IIIc.

But it's in the area of applications that Microsoft is hoping to win over users. Mr. Holden said that a Pocket PC can do a better job of importing data from Microsoft Outlook than can the Palm conduits available; and that among the top downloads of third-party software for the Palm are applications to view Word and Excel documents. By including such functions in the Pocket PC device, Microsoft hopes to further extend the reach of its Office suite to hand-held computers.

The more robust Outlook in-box, due to come out on the new platform, will include support for a broad range of file attachments. The new software also supports mail protocols that will enable access not only to Microsoft Exchange e-mail but also LotusNotes platforms.

Another feature shown by Mr. Holden is a pocket-sized version of Internet Explorer, which offers Web browsing without the clipping found in Palm solutions. Here, the Web pages included full and interactive graphics.

Perhaps most impressive certainly in my limited testing so far is the transcriber feature of the new version of PocketWord. Unlike the Palm, which requires a user to re-learn their handwriting to conform to a preset pattern, the transcriber was a lot more forgiving of my scrawled letters. With a little practice, my speed was not bad at all, and the recognition was excellent, far better than the Graffiti system on the Palm.

The bonus here is that this is not only an easy way of entering text in a device, but also produces notes that can be easily transferred to a desktop personal computer and edited with Word. The time savings can be tremendous for anyone who has to take notes in a meeting or conference, and then do something with those notes. Handwriting recognition can turn this Pocket PC device into an electronic notepad, though a more successful one than previous attempts by, say Apple Computer's now-defunct Newton and AT&T;'s ill-starred EO device.

There are likely to be plusses and minuses to the new platform versus the Palm platform. Palm clearly has the lead in number of users and number of developers the firm last week said 50,000 software developers had signed up under its aegis and in the number of cool add-ons for the Palm and its cousin, the Handspring Visor, which has a very neat expansion slot. Both the Visor and the Palm separate products from separate firms, it should be noted will soon have clip-on cameras that can be used to capture images for storage and sharing, for example; Handspring also claims it will have a string of other attachments for the Visor available soon from third-party developers.

A drawback for the Microsoft platform is there is no sign yet of links to Macs or Linux systems, while such do exist for Palm Computing devices. The company can fix this, at least on the Mac side, if it wants to, since the new Pocket PCs will feature a universal serial bus connection. All that's missing is the software, as far as I can see, and the determination.

One thing, however, is clear. Come next month, there is going to be a lot more competition when it comes to the computer that fits in your shirt pocket or purse. You can learn more on line at www.microsoft.com/windowsce/ products/highlights/ pocketpc.asp.

• Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002, send e-mail to [email protected], or visit the writer's Web page (www.markkellner.com).

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