Long-time readers of this column know that my opinion is split about Microsoft OSs for mobile devices. I've been a fan (and user) of Windows CE on handheld PCs (H/PCs) and of Windows XP on Tablet PCs, but on pocket-sized devices I've historically come down squarely in favor of the Palm OS. Two recent events have forced me to reconsider my opinion. First, I had an opportunity to use a Pocket PC 2003 device with built-in 802.11b Wi-Fi wireless network support. Second, I discovered a backup flaw on Palm OS devices—and a larger problem became apparent as I went looking for solutions.

My wife and I both use older Palm devices, and I'm not quite ready to buy replacements. But when the time comes, I plan to give Pocket PCs a close look. Here's why.

Recent Pocket PC 2003 Hardware
I've used various earlier models of Pocket PC devices, but I haven't had the chance to test a Pocket PC 2003 device until this year. The device I tested is a Toshiba e750—a high-end model with a 400MHz Intel PXA255 processor, 96MB of RAM, and Windows Mobile 2003 software in ROM. Measuring 5.9" × 3.1" × 0.6" and weighing 6.7 ounces, the e750 fits nicely in a shirt pocket. The device's best feature, however, is its built-in wireless networking. I've used add-on Wi-Fi cards with older Pocket PC 2002 devices, but the built-in wireless functionality makes more of a difference than I expected. And to my surprise, the unit boasts reasonable battery life, even when I'm using the wireless card. In fact, I have yet to exhaust the battery (which recharges when I place the device in its sync cradle).

Despite its long list of features, the e750 retails for less than $400. I got it as part of a package intended for private pilots of small airplanes, and the documentation instructed me not to enable the built-in wireless modem, which might interfere with onboard communications and navigation equipment. Why bundle a Pocket PC that features built-in wireless capability in a package that discourages the use of that feature? I posed that question to a vendor representative, who told me that some clients want the capability for use on the ground and that the cost is so low that they've decided to standardize on the e750.

That answer got my attention, and I spent some time playing around with the device in nonaviation scenarios. The more I played, the more impressed I became. Microsoft has significantly improved many Pocket PC features. In particular, the wireless network support is hugely improved over the last version I looked at. Connecting to my home office's wireless LAN (WLAN) was as easy as flipping the wireless switch on the bottom of the unit and tapping the Wireless Networks icon on the Control Panel System tab. As Figure 1 shows, the device detected Access Points (APs) for both me (LIONEL) and my next-door neighbor (linksys). The device also correctly identified my network as Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP)­enabled and asked me for a password. (The e750 also includes options for shared-mode network authentication, automatic key distribution, and 802.1x-based network access.) I connected to the Internet in just a few seconds.

As Figure 2 shows, Pocket Internet Explorer (PIE) now supports proxy servers, which are necessary for behind-the-firewall Web access at many organizations. I used a proxy server to access database search pages at the library of the University of North Dakota, at which I'm a graduate student. Aside from the need to scroll around the small Pocket PC display, the process was completely seamless and I was able to access everything that I typically reach from my desk.

The e750 requires a new version of Microsoft ActiveSync for synchronization with Windows Mobile 2003 devices (including Pocket PCs), so I downloaded the software, installed it, and was able to sync the e750 with my desktop by simply dropping the device into its sync cradle. Again, the process was seamless, and in a matter of minutes I copied my Microsoft Outlook Address Book, Calendar, and Inbox to the e750. And after a first sync through the cradle, I found that I could sync wirelessly. (I tested synchronization on my desktop PC, but in a corporate environment you could sync directly with a Microsoft Exchange Server system, as Figure 3 shows.)

Just a few days after I got the e750, I left on a 4-day business trip and brought the device with me. I was able to use the e750 at public Wi-Fi hotspots in the Sacramento, California, and Denver, Colorado, airports and in a Denver hotel. In each case, after I got the necessary credentials for wireless Internet access, the e750 provided full functionality, including Web browsing and wireless email—all at quite a high speed. Compared with the slow, text-only wireless email my old Palm VIIx provides, this functionality was a revelation.

As you can tell, I'm impressed with the e750. The features I've described are also available on other Pocket PC 2003 devices, although I can't vouch for the performance or battery life of other models.

Palm Problems
The same week that I started experimenting with the e750, a friend called with a problem. Like me, he runs Outlook on his desktop PC, but he felt that this setup was excessively complex—and expensive—for a home-computer user such as his wife. Palm devices come with a simpler personal information manager (PIM) called Palm Desktop, so he set that up for her. Unfortunately, she lost some items from her Palm device's calendar, and he was having difficulty figuring out how to restore backup data into Palm Desktop.

I assumed this problem would be simple to solve, primarily because my wife uses exactly the same setup. I started with a search of the palmOne Web site, and when that didn't turn up a clear answer, I tried Palm Desktop's online Help. No assistance there. Eventually, I turned to David Pogue's invaluable book Palm Pilot: The Ultimate Guide (O'Reilly, 1999), and I found the answer after a quick search. Without diving too deeply into the details (if you need them, feel free to email me), the gist of my discovery was that Palm Desktop uses separate databases for each module (e.g., calendar, address book, notes). Each database must be archived (or restored) separately. My friend had assumed that backing up the Palm Desktop data files on his wife's PC would provide a full archive of all data from a particular date range, but as of this writing neither of us has figured out how to restore any data—and we've both spent considerable time trying.

Of course, you don't have to use Palm Desktop—in fact, I'm willing to bet that most users don't. The CD-ROM that comes with new Palm devices includes a conduit (Palm's terminology for middleware that permits synchronization with a Palm-based PDA) for Outlook, so you can back up and restore data by using a .pst file in the usual way. I'm currently setting up that conduit for my wife. But I'm disturbed that Palm doesn't have a simple methodology for the PIM software it provides in the box with the device.

I'm also disturbed that the most helpful documentation about this problem came not from Palm but from a book that hasn't been revised since 1999. This concern leads me to the inevitable question: What's going on at Palm? I've owned Palm devices for more than 5 years, and I'm having increasing trouble understanding the company's product line and strategy.

Still, palmOne (the company's name changed last year) continues to support the low-bandwidth Palm.Net system that my old, reliable Palm VIIx uses. The Palm.Net system has one huge advantage over any other wireless network that I'm aware of: true nationwide coverage. Palm also offers devices that have built-in 802.11x support and Bluetooth, as well as the Treo line of smartphone devices that Palm acquired from Handspring last year.

Palm's problem is that it doesn't have a consistent strategy in the wireless Web arena. The Web-clipping approach of the low-bandwidth Palm.Net service isn't well suited to high-bandwidth connections such as Wi-Fi. As a Palm.Net user, I can't help but notice that some of the big names that once supported it no longer do. My Palm VIIx's The Wall Street Journal Online and Ask Jeeves applets, for example, are no longer functional. These companies have apparently decided that Palm.Net applications simply aren't worth the trouble.

Pocket PC Rising
I'm finding Pocket PC applications just about everywhere I look these days. I'm taking a graduate course in observational astronomy, and Software Bisque's TheSky, a popular "virtual planetarium" program, comes in a mobile version for Pocket PCs—but it isn't available for Palm devices. I work as a volunteer pharmacist with Liga International in Mexico and have been using Tarascon Publishing's Tarascon Pocket Pharmacopoeia software on my Palm VIIx for over a year—and now a Pocket PC version is available. And AirGator!'s NAVAir, the aviation software that the e750 came with, is available only for Pocket PCs—Palm devices aren't supported.

This trend seems to extend to general business and vertical applications as well. Pocket PCs and other Windows Mobile devices are looking better and better. And they're getting increasilngly popular all the time. Will this trend spell the end for Palm? I hope Palm survives and thrives—but I'm beginning to wonder about the company's future.