What does it take to sync Handheld PCs with NT?

Recently, I've been attempting to use a Windows CE device as a full-fledged member of my production arsenal. I'd already given a variety of palmtop computers (from 3Com's PalmPilot to various PalmPCs) an opportunity to fit into my work habits, so this attempt wasn't my first. Yet, I haven't quite succeeded. For me, the palm-sized devices, which so many people love, were an accident waiting to happen. Almost without fail, shortly after getting all my contact information into a little system, I broke it, usually by putting the device in my pocket and then leaning against the edge of a desk. Then—crack—no more screen and no more usable device. After I broke a couple of these little devices, I got discouraged.

I've managed not to break my most recent palm-sized acquisition, a Casio Cassiopeia E-11 Windows CE machine. However, the device isn't incredibly useful. One reason is the battery life. If I leave the device in my briefcase between business trips, the batteries die. If I use it to play a game on a cross-country flight, this marks the end for the batteries. Also, if I use it all day at a trade show to take notes and schedule appointments, then I need to buy new batteries that evening. Buying AAA batteries in bulk starts to get expensive. To top off my problems, Windows CE 2.1 (the version on the Cassiopeia E-11) wouldn't sync up with the Microsoft Outlook 2000 betas that I've been using, so I couldn't download my schedule from my desktop to the palmtop.

With a bit of trepidation, I took on the task of incorporating the latest generation of Windows CE, Windows CE Handheld PC Professional Edition, into my assemblage. Microsoft calls devices that run H/PC Pro Edition (i.e., Windows CE 2.11) Handheld PCs (H/PCs). These capable devices fit the bill for what we formerly called subnotebooks, because they're small (about 1" thick with a width and length smaller than an 8 1/2" * 11" sheet of paper) and light.

Just as the notebook market spawned a class of desktop replacement products, this new genre of Windows CE devices might replace notebooks. Although the devices don't offer all the features of a notebook computer, they do offer features that business travelers often use: the ability to create and edit documents, work with spreadsheets, display presentations, and check email. The model that showed up in my office was an NEC MobilePro 800, which is a $999 device that includes a 9.4" color touch-screen, a built-in V.90 modem, and—most important—a rechargeable lithium ion battery with enough juice to go the distance on a cross-country flight. The keyboard is big enough to use (I'm writing this column on it), and the 32MB of usable memory (in addition to the 24MB of ROM) is more than enough to hold the files and email I want to have available on my flights. I also bought a TDK 16MB Compact Flash card ($49 for memory) to provide extra data storage. Of course, for nearly $1000, you would expect quite a bit from the MobilePro because you can purchase full-featured notebooks (albeit ones with trailing-edge technology) for only a few hundred dollars more.

At this point, I had my cutting-edge Windows CE device and I was ready to go. The first thing I needed to do was sync it up with my desktop. I'm running Windows NT Workstation 4.0 (which the MobilePro documentation states Windows CE supports), so I followed the directions and let Windows CE Services install on my desktop and install and configure the RAS components. The installation wizard was smart enough to ask for the Service Pack 4 (SP4) CD-ROM to update the components correctly. But after the installation completed, Windows CE Services couldn't communicate with the Windows CE device. The MobilePro detected activity on the serial port, but no communication took place.

The time had come to start troubleshooting. I checked all the RAS settings, port settings, and port speeds on the desktop and the Windows CE device. I tried different combinations of port speeds and I changed the physical port that the Windows CE connection was on. Nothing worked. So I bowed to the inevitable: I made a call to Microsoft.

After I had the Windows CE support folks on the phone, I figured that I would have the sucker up and running before long. Ninety minutes later, I had reinstalled the software three times and reinstalled RAS twice. I had also uninstalled the RAS components and installed them again with the Windows CE device attached and unattached. Every time Windows CE Services configured RAS, the device prompted me for the SP4 CD-ROM and installed the service pack. Finally, after what I thought was the last possible permutation of the installation steps, Microsoft's support representative asked me to do a complete installation, then reinstall SP4. Well, the reinstall of SP4 got the communications working! Hurray! Huzzah! SP4 cures all!

While the MobilePro and my desktop were getting along, I installed several applications that came with the Windows CE system. I liked Ruksun Software Technologies' Connect Force application, which configures your system for dial-out. Getting set up with my existing account on The Microsoft Network (MSN) took me less than a minute. The built-in printer driver worked perfectly using the internal router (IR) port to communicate with my HP LaserJet 6P. Everything was going along smoothly. I got an email account configured for use with my Inbox and sent and received some test email. The setup looked ready to go.

The next day, I was ready to sync up my appointments from Outlook before leaving for NetWorld+Interop and—lo and behold—the MobilePro and my desktop refused to communicate. I hadn't changed anything, so I don't know what caused this communication failure. I tried reinstalling the software and applying SP4 again, but no dice. The device and Outlook had no communication. In desperation, I applied the newly released SP5, but this didn't help either. But, because I had gotten the dial-up and email connections working the previous day, I was able to convert Microsoft Word files to the Microsoft Pocket Word format, then email them to the MobilePro.

I haven't spoken to Microsoft again about my communication problems, but I've talked to other NT users who have tried to use Windows CE devices. At least 60 percent of these users tell me that they can't get Windows CE Services to work consistently with NT. Many of these users had Windows 98 on their normal notebook devices and found that Windows CE Services didn't have problems working with Win98 or Win95. The problems seemed to crop up only with NT. Well, my notebook computer runs Windows 2000 (Win2K) beta 3, and I discovered that the MobilePro didn't have any more success talking to the notebook than it had talking to my desktop.

Now, NEC offers an Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) client so that you can use the MobilePro as a Windows terminal. Microsoft should ship an RDP client soon, so you won't need to run Citrix MetaFrame on top of NT 4.0, Terminal Server Edition to turn these machines into Terminal Server clients. But without the ability to reliably connect and sync to a Win2K or NT desktop (i.e., Microsoft's business desktop of choice), the future doesn't bode well for this class of computer. The fall of the mobile computer device would be a shame, because if this MobilePro reliably communicated with my desktop, I believe that it (and its H/PC brethren from other manufacturers) would become an oft-used piece of equipment in my computer arsenal.