A new Pocket PC version promises to wow the corporate world

Microsoft and its hardware partners have announced a major revision of the Pocket PC specification. This revision's intention is, in part, to make Pocket PC devices as popular with IT departments as they are with end users. Although they aren't perfect, Pocket PC 2002 devices and their support infrastructure represent a big step toward integrating mobile devices into the enterprise.

Specific features of interest to IT folks include—for the first time directly from Microsoft—the capability to synchronize devices with a Microsoft Exchange Server system, rather than needing to synchronize with individual users' desktop PCs. The devices can use Microsoft's implementation of PPTP to access Windows 2000 servers over a VPN, as Figure 1 shows. Pocket PC 2002 devices can also browse network shares much as desktop PCs can. To improve device security, Microsoft has introduced long alphanumeric passwords into the device-activation process, as Figure 2 shows. (You can still use the existing four-digit PIN code, which is also improved with a timeout that gets longer with every wrong guess.)

Perhaps most interesting to IT shops, the new devices will come with a terminal services client (for Windows XP, Win2K, or Windows NT) installed. That's right—you can now use a device no larger than a deck of playing cards to access any Windows application and even the server console over a wireless Ethernet (assuming you have the appropriate hardware installed on your network).

First, A Major Caveat
If your organization uses Pocket PCs other than Compaq's iPAQs or Symbol Technologies' most recent industrial devices, prepare yourself for some bad news. All Pocket PC 2002 devices must store the OS and built-in applications in flash memory, and they must use Intel's Strong-ARM processor family. Pocket PC 2002 has dropped all the other CPU families that earlier versions of Pocket PC support. Therefore, if you use Hewlett-Packard's (HP's) Jornada or Casio's CASSIOPEIA devices, you'll need to purchase new hardware (which HP and Casio will happily provide) equipped with the aforementioned flash memory and StrongARM CPU. iPAQ and Symbol devices already have flash memory and StrongARM CPUs, so you'll be able to upgrade your devices in the field by reflashing them.

The reason for the flash-memory requirement is a good one. Although Microsoft has pushed for upgradability in the past (e.g., requiring socketed ROMs on the earliest devices), vendors have shown little interest in upgradable devices, preferring to sell new units. (Compaq is one notable exception.) By requiring flash memory, Microsoft can enforce upgradability—if necessary, by providing flash-update files directly to users. The flash-memory requirement will also simplify Microsoft's delivery of bug fixes and security patches.

Narrowing to one processor family vastly simplifies development and testing of Pocket PC 2002 applications and also simplifies the lives of end users and those who support them. You'll no longer need to worry about whether a particular application's vendor supports your device's CPU family. The result should be a broader range of available applications. Microsoft is taking other steps to help developers, including a software development kit (SDK) that offers an improved Pocket PC emulator. This emulator will run in a virtual machine and use the same code as an actual device—a strategy similar to that of Palm in its SDK.

What Else Is New?
Other Pocket PC 2002 hardware requirements haven't changed much from those of the most recent revision. However, two developments stand out: Microsoft has added a unique 128-bit hardware identifier for digital rights management (DRM) support and has outlined specific battery requirements. Gray scale devices need to provide 15 hours of continuous use with a 30 percent CPU load, and color devices need to provide at least 8 hours of continuous use under the same load. (Microsoft believes a real-world load is more like 10 percent, so you should enjoy more hours than the number stated rather than fewer.) Wireless Pocket PCs, which should appear this year, need to provide at least 100 hours of standby and 3 hours of talk time. All devices need to retain their memory state for at least 72 hours after low-battery shutdown—and at least 30 minutes after main-battery removal.

For the end user, a Pocket PC 2002 device functions similarly to earlier Pocket PCs. The most visible difference is that Microsoft has added "smart minimize" buttons to the upper-right corner of most application windows. (Microsoft has conceded that users need an easy way to escape one application and load another on the display.) For the most part, Pocket PC 2002 replaces dialog boxes with "bubble notifications," which resemble dialog boxes but add a pointer to the relevant application. (Figure 3 shows a sample bubble notification.) Bubble notifications disappear after a preset period without requiring any user action.

Users migrating from a Palm OS device to a Pocket PC 2002 device will be interested in a new input method called Block Recognizer, which offers the same functionality as Graffiti, Palm's character-recognition feature. Block Recognizer joins Microsoft's existing Letter Recognizer and pop-up Keyboard features. However, the most important input method is a new version of Transcriber, a recognizer that Microsoft offers as an add-on to earlier Pocket PCs. (Transcriber is a licensed version of CalliGrapher, which is a direct descendant of the recognizer that Apple Computer's now-defunct Newton PDA used.) Transcriber, which lets you write—in print or script—anywhere on the display, is significantly faster and more accurate than earlier versions. Microsoft believes the new version is impressive enough to become the de facto recognizer standard for Pocket PC 2002 users. Windows XP—based Tablet PCs will use the same technology.

The biggest news for the corporate IT department is probably the new support for direct synchronization of Pocket PCs with an Exchange server, eliminating the need for end users to synchronize their devices with their desktop or notebook PC. As you might expect, Microsoft has used a server-side version of ActiveSync to accomplish this support. To obtain Server ActiveSync, however, you must buy a copy of Microsoft's Mobile Information Server (MIS) 2002—and you'll need a separate physical server on which to run it. Although you can run MIS 2002 on the same server as Exchange for evaluation purposes, Microsoft won't support this configuration for production use.

One glaring omission is support for centralized control of Pocket PC configuration. Pocket PC 2002's designers assure me that the current release doesn't offer such support simply because of lack of time. (Microsoft was determined to get Pocket PC 2002 devices into stores in time for Christmas 2001.) Support for centralized device management and software distribution will be available from third parties. Because Microsoft can now expect to easily provide on-device OS upgrades through flash memory, a version of Systems Management Server (SMS) will probably offer these features fairly soon.

A New Beginning?
I've been skeptical of Microsoft's mobile-device strategy for the past couple of years. The company has promised a lot and delivered too little. Combine Microsoft's track record with the self-defeating greed of some device vendors (which never delivered device upgrades and insisted on proprietary, incompatible serial-port connectors), and the market's reluctance to embrace Microsoft's mobile devices is hardly surprising.

I'm cautiously optimistic that this revision will usher in a new era of market support. Microsoft has taken the best of the existing Pocket PCs—Compaq's amazing iPAQ—and added features that will impress the corporate audience. (I'll take a detailed look at the VPN support and terminal services client in an upcoming column for Windows & .NET Magazine.) Microsoft has also provided a vastly improved development environment that might quickly generate a critical mass of mobile-device software. With Palm's fortunes in apparent decline, Pocket PC 2002 might just be a turning point for the mobile-device market.