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Compaq's iPAQ PocketPC: The Multi-Purpose Multimedia Handheld
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PocketPC Software

The PocketPC operating system is Windows CE 3.0. The development trajectory for CE has apparently followed the same curve as Microsoft Windows, requiring three versions for Microsoft to get it right. It is another example of how Microsoft utilizes the time to observe and learn from a successful competitor. Just as Microsoft learned from Apple, while Apple appeared to stop learning, so too has Microsoft learned from Palm. There must have been a lot of Microsoft engineers obsessed with understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the Palm -- more perhaps than were doing the same task at Palm Computing. It's a credit to Microsoft's persistence that if they keep working on something, they will eventually get it right.



On the whole, the PocketPC seems right. Its interface is simple and reasonably transparent. It is so integrated with the desktop that life is made very easy for a Windows user. The iPAQ shows up in Windows Explorer as a mobile device, and its contents can be browsed as easily as the contents of a CD-ROM. I can drag and drop files and the ActiveSync program will take care of any file conversion. I contrast this with several fairly rough outings trying to place a copy of a document on my Palm.

Admittedly, if you don't like Microsoft, such complete integration of the PocketPC and the desktop will only give you reason to dislike Microsoft even more. It hardly seems fair that Microsoft can make a better device by successfully leveraging its desktop dominance, along with its complete control of the Web browser, not to mention its office productivity software. That all this goes into the PocketPC package represents a significant competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Instantly up and running

I had forgotten how liberating it is to have a computer start up instantly. There is no bootup process, no waiting for the iPAQ to get going. That kind of responsiveness is what makes a handheld like the Palm or the iPAQ so enjoyable and convenient to use. It is a small amount of time, but it gets you using a computer even when you only need it for a minute or two. I found myself using the iPAQ in unexpected situations because I had a few minutes to spare.

The other side of getting up and running instantly is that you can also shut down instantly. You can also yank the iPAQ out of its cradle without having to tell any piece of software that you are going to do so. This makes it convenient to grab the iPAQ and just go.

"It is much easier to imagine and understand a more enlightened, powerful Web if we break free of some of the world's current assumptions about how we use computers. When I want to interact with a computer, I have to wait several minutes after turning it on before it is ready to converse. This is absurd. These machines are supposed to be there for us, not the other way around. So let's begin our thinking about a new world by imagining one in which a computer screen is available whenever we want it."

-Tim Berners-Lee
"Weaving the Web"

Tip-Tap

Like a Palm, the PocketPC is a pen-based computer; you tap on the screen using a stylus or your finger. Here are several things a first-time user needs to know to use the PocketPC:

  • The Start Menu is at the top of the screen. Tap it to list common functions and programs.
  • Applications remain open. A row of application icons appear on the Start Menu that serve as shortcuts to switch from one task to the next. It's an easy way to multi-task.
  • At the bottom of the screen is an application-specific menu bar; on the right hand side of this bar is a pen, which you select to open an area for entering text by writing. Alternatively, you can choose to display a keyboard for input.
  • The equivalent of a right-click on a mouse is called Tap and Hold. If you tap on an item, such one of your contacts, a menu-in-context will appear, offering copy, paste, and delete functions.

The iPAQ displays a customizable Today screen as the default startup window. The Today screen lists today's calendar appointments and summarizes active tasks and e-mail messages. On the Palm, I had to buy a third-party application (TealGlance) to have the same kind of single-screen summary of important information. From the Today screen, you can choose to create new documents, contacts, or messages.

The most basic elements of the Microsoft desktop are available in modified form, whether it's the File Explorer or applications such PocketWord and PocketExcel -- or the most aptly named Pocket Money. Along with Internet Explorer, these are applications with which users are already familiar.

There are several changes that Microsoft made to the CE with the goal of simplifying the user interface. These small changes represent a departure from the Windows desktop interface. I've already mentioned that the Start Menu is at the top of screen, an important change from the previous versions of CE, which had placed it at the bottom.

The most interesting change is that you don't really close an application once you've opened it. You just move on. Applications remain open, retaining the state you left them in as you switch from one to the next. The PocketPC is supposed to intelligently manage memory allocation, closing applications (and saving data) automatically to free additional memory. Still, old habits are hard to break. During my first few hours with the iPAQ, I was looking for Exit or Quit on application menus.

There are no cascading menus and no overlaying menus, which were used in previous versions of CE but were seen to be unnecessary clutter. You won't find a File menu in PocketWord. It uses an abbreviated menu at the bottom of the screen. New is the first option on the menu, which opens a new document.

The iPAQ buttons.

The iPAQ buttons can be set for customized functions.

The iPAQ has four application buttons on the front, all of which can be customized to any function. Of the pair of buttons on the left, one opens the calendar and the other opens the contact list. The pair of buttons on the right side are Compaq-specific "Q" buttons that provide two different lists from which to launch programs. In the center of both pairs of buttons is a larger navagation button with a flower-burst pattern that conceals a speaker underneath. The navigation button operates in four directions, which is useful for browsing a list or turning pages. It also can be pressed down to act on a selected item. This button is particularly useful for Pocket Streets, which can be used to navigate a map.

InSync with Outlook

The iPAQ cradle.

The iPAQ cradle.

Bottom edge of iPAQ.

Fitting the iPAQ into the cradle can be awkward as you have to align two separate openings.

The iPAQ fits into a cradle that attaches to a desktop computer via a USB port. The cradle also has a power cord and it recharges the iPAQ's lithium polymer battery. The cradle itself is overstylized for my taste. I'd prefer something less conspicuous sitting on my desk. Fitting the iPAQ into the cradle can be awkward as you have to align two separate openings.

ActiveSync is the desktop software that establishes a connection between the desktop machine and iPAQ and then automates the synchronization process. Synchronization will occur each time ActiveSync detects a connection with the iPAQ, and if the iPAQ remains connected, synchronization will happen continuously. This means updates are recognized immediately, if you're connected.

The bulk of synchronization activity is with Microsoft Outlook, which manages the calendar, task list, contact information, notes, and e-mail. If you are already using Microsoft Outlook, then synchronizing between the desktop and the iPAQ is very easy. If not, it's fair to say that Microsoft wants you to switch. Don't expect Microsoft to make much of an effort to support competitive products such as ACT. You will have to find a third-party solution to do this, just as I had to use Pocket Mirror on the Palm to exchange data with Outlook. In general, though, Outlook is a stronger, more complete personal information management program than the Palm Desktop.

ActiveSync does not make a complete copy of all Outlook data. For instance, it is set up to download only the two most recent weeks of calendar appointments along with all future dates. This minimizes the amount of information stored on the iPAQ, but it is configurable if you need to keep more.

Screen shot of ActiveSync.

Screen shot of ActiveSync.

In many ways, ActiveSync is the same kind of program as its equivalent on the Palm. But what's more surprising about the PocketPC is the number of other ways you can move information to your iPAQ without actually using ActiveSync. If you want to move files to the iPAQ, you will find that a connected iPAQ appears as a "Mobile Device" icon in the My Computer window. You can use Windows Explorer to examine the contents of the iPAQ and drag and drop files from the desktop to the device. It's almost wholly transparent. One disappointment, however, is that the Mobile Device icon does not show up on the Windows File Menu, which means you can't save a file directly to the iPAQ.

Screen shot of Mobile Device Folder.

Screen shot of Mobile Device Folder (click to enlarge view).

You can also use Outlook to transfer selected e-mail messages to the PocketPC. This is a very useful solution. I might like to take a few important messages from my Inbox and move them to the iPAQ, but I certainly don't want all my e-mail on the iPAQ. On Outlook's Tools menu, once you've installed ActiveSync, there's a new option, "Windows CE Inbox Transfer." You can select a message in your Inbox and transfer it to the handheld device. Then you can read that message in Pocket Outlook.

When we discuss the Windows Media Player, we'll see how to move MP3 files to the iPAQ.

Infrared connections

In addition to using the cradle, you can also use the infrared port to sync up with a laptop or other computer that supports an infrared interface. I have had several computers that support infrared, and I have tried syncing up via infrared with devices such as a digital camera and a Casio organizer, but I've never had much luck getting infrared to work reliably. Until now. I was delighted that I could establish a connection between my ThinkPad and the iPAQ over an infrared connection. Given that the cradle is somewhat large and awkward to carry, it is convenient to be able to sync up via infrared when my laptop is not at my desk and connected to the cradle.

The Palm, on the other hand, does not sync up easily with a laptop via infrared, although I believe there's third party software for doing that. The Palm has become famous among users for using infrared to "beam" information back and forth, such as swapping business cards. Without having read whether it was possible, I tried to make a connection with a Palm V user. Interestingly, the iPAQ seemed to recognize the Palm device, and somehow picked up the user's name and displayed it, but we weren't able to exchange any information. The Palm V didn't respond at all.

There is software called the Peacemaker from Conduits Technologies that is designed to solve this problem. The standard edition of Peacemaker, which is free, allows you to beam and receive contact information. The professional edition, which is available for a free 30-day trial period and costs $14.95, adds the ability to beam and receive tasks, appointments, and notes. I tried this program, and while I was successful at beaming a note to a colleague's Palm V, I struggled to figure out how to send contact information. However, beaming to a Palm eventually worked using Peacemaker.

There is really no documentation on the Conduits.com site -- I'd be willing to pay for the software if there were decent documentation. The instruction to perform a soft reset of the iPAQ without further information was worrisome and had me asking the question, "Is the ability to beam a Palm user worth potentially wiping out what I have on my iPAQ?"

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