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Windows Gets Smaller
Nov 25, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

The people that get paid to pronounce such things have pronounced over and over again that computing will continue to get smaller and smaller and smaller... To the point where you've got your PIM running in the sole of your shoe, communicating with the other shoes in the room. ("Hey, nice swoosh. Wanna exchange VCards?")

Until we reach that laced-up Elysium, the bit-addled among us are stuck with the personal digital assistant. Or electronic organizer. Or handheld PC. Or whatever they're calling it these days.

After the fall of the Newton (which, as you look back on it, was as inevitable as gravity), the mainstream PC press was remarkably free of PDA hype. Thanks to some lousy handwriting recognition and an oversized form factor, the category was stillborn. Meanwhile, products like the Sharp Zaurus, the Psion Series 3a, the HP OmniGo and the US Robotics Pilot operated under the radar screen of hype-central, and actually helped their owners organize their lives and get some work done.

Bit just when you thought it was safe to use your little thing-a-majig without getting inquisitive looks from the guy in the next seat on the commuter train, here comes Microsoft, with Windows CE. And the requisite hype.

Reportedly, Comdex was chock full of machines from Compaq, Casio, HP, NEC and others running the dimunitive version of Windows 95. The machines all weigh about a pound, fit "in your pocket" (assuming you're not talking about something convenient like a shirt or pants pocket), and will retail for between $500 and $1,000.

Windows CE has been a long time in coming. Back when Microsoft was developing Windows 95 (then known as 4.0 or Chicago), there was talk of "WinPad," which would be released for palmtop computers soon after the PC operating system. Of course, with the high-profile failure of the Newton, Microsoft rightly retrenched to see where the world was headed. And, at first glance, they made some good decisions -- like including built-in integration with the Windows desktop, a simple email application and Internet Explorer. For the traveling sales rep who needs to make a quick connection to the corporate web site and blast off a few emails, it could be the perfect machine. It looks just like Windows, it runs just like Windows, and it even has that helpful little Start button and the politically correct Recycle Bin.

But wait a minute...does it make sense to have a miniature version of the Recycle Bin in your palm?

When you read about the beginnings of the Graphical User Interface, you learn about the challenge to create a metaphor for the user that's easy to understand. And the one they chose was the desktop...complete with documents, file folders and a trash can. Since most people work on their computers at some sort of desk, the metaphor is transparent.

Does this UI metaphor hold water when you're away from your desk? It's a simple form/function question, really: does it make sense to have an "opaque" operating system on the machine that you need to work most "transparently" with? Windows CE requires using a combination of the pen and the keyboard for navigation and data entry. Sure, you've got that "friendly" Start button in the lower left corner of your display, but if you have to fumble around pulling out a pen to tap it, what good does it do you?

Microsoft claims that Windows CE is "compact, providing high performance in limited memory configurations." That sounds all fine and good, until you read the FAQ, and realize that it sounds a heck of a lot like the Windows we all know and "love." Sentences like "If you're having strange problems, close all applications and reset the device" and "Don't forget Inbox doesn't like attachments" send familiar chills up my spine. And I'm going to put my calendar on this thing? Talk about a critical app...

What's fascinating about Microsoft's move into the PDA market is that if users think Windows CE is worth it's salt, then PDA differentiation will have to be done on the physical characteristics of the machines. If the O/S is set by Microsoft, then the hardware manufacturers will have to sell their products based on mundane things like ergonomics, battery life, communications capabilities and, God forbid, color. Sounds an awful lot like the laptop business to me.

This is a shame, because I honestly think that the PDA market is the only place we're seeing any real innovation in consumer electronics, where the software and the hardware are being designed in tandem, to work together. The Pilot, for example, is built from the ground up to be a fast, easy-to-use peripheral. Half of the machine is the cradle that connects it to your PC. The Pilot isn't out to pass any Turing tests, it's only designed to serve up your schedule, to-do list and your address book. The software on the handheld is quick, simple and intuitive. No "Start" in sight. Just a simple green power button.

Hmmmm...if Windows CE doesn't fly as the uber-operating system for PDAs, maybe Microsoft should take this compact, limited memory O/S and make it run on all those 386's that the nation's grade schools and libraries are stuck with.



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