Handheld device capabilities have come a long way

For years, I've watched the evolution of Windows CE-powered handheld devices and always discounted their value after considering their speed, applications, and interfaces. The prospect of peering at a dim screen while trying to compose notes and memos by hunting and pecking with a stylus or using a handwriting recognition program that couldn't understand my marks wasn't attractive. And I could always perform my job more effectively with a notebook PC.

Lately, I've been using a new-generation Pocket PC, and although I haven't concluded that it's time to turn in my notebook PC, I've found that a Pocket PC running Windows CE 3.0 is a great advance over earlier handheld devices in terms of usability. I use a Pocket PC to take part of my Microsoft Exchange Server mailbox on the road, and I use Microsoft Pocket Outlook to create, read, and send messages. Other options—such as Research in Motion's (RIM's) BlackBerry—are available and might work better in your environment. (For more information about Pocket PCs, see Ed Roth, Lab Notes, "The Problem with Pocket PCs," January 2001.)

Connecting to Exchange
Different Pocket PC models offer a variety of ways to connect to your mailbox on an Exchange 2000 Server or Exchange Server 5.5 machine, depending on the Pocket PC's configurations and software. Typical connection options are a hosted connection through a PC, an infrared connection, a network (PC Card) connection, a wireless connection, or a dial-up connection.

To create a hosted connection, you use a USB or serial port that connects a cradle to a desktop or notebook PC that runs Microsoft ActiveSync 3.1 and Outlook 2000. ActiveSync controls synchronization of data between a host PC and a Pocket PC. Think of the PC as an intermediary for the Pocket PC, acting as a gateway to data on either the PC's disks or a network resource that the PC can connect to. Pocket PC documentation refers to this relationship as a partnership, meaning that the PC and Pocket PC can combine functionality to access network resources and perform maintenance operations. For example, if you want to install a new application on the Pocket PC, you need to first install the application on the partner PC, which then downloads the necessary information to the Pocket PC the next time the devices connect.

The cradle is a docking station for the Pocket PC. When you place the Pocket PC in the cradle, the Pocket PC can use the USB or serial port connection to communicate with the PC and synchronize data. An infrared connection is possible only when the Pocket PC and PC have infrared ports. You can line up the two ports, establish an infrared link, and synchronize data across the link. An infrared connection is convenient when no other connection options are available but is much slower than a USB or serial connection.

A network connection is possible only when the Pocket PC has an expansion pack that supports a standard PC network card. The expansion pack can be a sleeve that the PC Card and the Pocket PC fit into. The sleeve adds to the Pocket PC's bulk but lets the Pocket PC use almost any PC Card that you can use with a standard notebook PC, including wireless and Global Positioning System (GPS) cards.

Wireless connections operate well when you work at a location that has wireless base stations, which link devices with wireless cards into the company network. Connected wireless devices enjoy the same quality of network access as devices that use Ethernet cards. My workplace is equipped with wireless base stations, so I installed a Compaq WL100 Wireless LAN PC Card into my Pocket PC. The PC Card enabled an 11Mbps connection to Exchange Server and other network resources, such as Web sites. (A range of other wireless cards that work with Pocket PCs are available from vendors.) Most wireless cards require you to complete a two-stage process to install a new driver on the Pocket PC before the Pocket PC can make connections: Install the driver on the partner PC, then download the driver to the Pocket PC.

To enhance wide-area wireless connectivity, consider products such as Infowave's Exchange Connector, which optimizes the wireless link between the Pocket PC and Exchange Server. Not many companies have yet deployed a wireless infrastructure, and public wireless networks aren't widespread, but you can use Exchange Connector with a cell phone. To use the product with a cell phone, link the phone to a PC Card in the Pocket PC's sleeve and make a dial-up connection. The Exchange Connector server compresses the traffic that passes across the link and maximizes the relatively low connection speed (typically 19.2Kbps or slower) to deliver adequate performance when you browse your Inbox. Pocket PCs support PC Card and CompactFlash (CF) modems, although support for modem types varies among vendors.

Network and dial-up connections don't require an intermediate PC, as hosted connections do. Instead, a dial-up connection connects to servers over RAS in exactly the same way that you'd dial in from a notebook PC. After devices connect, Pocket Outlook can use the IMAP or POP3 protocol to connect to your Exchange Server mailbox over the link. IMAP4 is the more recent and functional protocol, and it's the better alternative if you're using a traditional network connection.

You need to always use the same method for accessing email. If you mix access methods, you can end up with two sets of the same messages on the Pocket PC. For example, if you're in the office on Monday and use ActiveSync to synchronize through a USB link, then go on the road Tuesday and use a dial-up connection and IMAP4 to download messages, you'll end up with duplicate messages. The two connection methods have no dependency on each other, and Pocket Outlook maintains separate Inboxes for each method. I use ActiveSync because it's fast. Whenever I'm in the office, I use the USB connection to synchronize my Pocket PC. When I'm on the road, I use my notebook PC to download email and calendar updates from the Exchange Server machine, then use an infrared connection to the notebook to update my Pocket PC's contents.

Using ActiveSync to Synchronize Mailbox Data
Synchronization is the process of comparing and resolving differences between the contents of Exchange Server mailbox folders (e.g., Inbox, Calendar, Tasks, Notes) and the Pocket PC. ActiveSync is much easier to configure and simpler to use than its predecessor, Windows CE Services. (For more information about ActiveSync, see David Chernicoff, Forefront, "Synchronizing Windows CE," December 1999.) ActiveSync installs on the host PC and starts whenever the host PC boots up. The process (wcescomm.exe) runs in the background until it detects that a Pocket PC is connected to the PC, then it begins the synchronization process. ActiveSync synchronizes email and downloads software updates, such as new drivers or applications that you want to install on the Pocket PC. Typically, ActiveSync occupies 7 to 10 percent of a host PC's CPU during the synchronization process. ActiveSync alerts you when it finishes synchronization. Figure 1 shows that my Calendar, Contacts, Inbox, Tasks, and Favorite folders downloaded to my Pocket PC without any problems. You can also elect to download your Notes folder's contents.

To connect to an Exchange Server mailbox, ActiveSync uses the default Messaging API (MAPI) profile that the system creates for Outlook. The MAPI profile identifies the name of your mailbox and the server on which your mailbox resides. That information, along with the cached Windows NT credentials on your PC, lets ActiveSync connect to Exchange Server and synchronize information. The Pocket PC doesn't support the NT authentication sequence, so you won't see a screen demanding a domain name, account name, and password. However, if you've set a password (consisting of four-digits) on the Pocket PC, you'll need to provide the password before synchronization can proceed. You can tell ActiveSync to remember the password so that the program doesn't prompt you for it every time the Pocket PC connects. If you forget your password, you can remove the batteries from your Pocket PC to force a reset, which will let you change the password. (Alternatively, some models support a reset through a main battery switch.) You can then provide the new password to ActiveSync the next time the Pocket PC connects. Resetting the Pocket PC usually requires you to resynchronize all data because you must recreate the partnership.

If you configure your host PC to support multiple MAPI profiles and set Outlook to ask which profile to use when the program starts up, ActiveSync will use only the profile that the host PC is using, which is typically the default profile. This behavior is sensible because the copies of your Inbox, Calendar, Notes, and Tasks folders on the Pocket PC are similar to the replica folders that an offline store (OST) holds. Pocket PC folders and the replicas on the host system are tied to a particular profile, and you'll force a complete resynchronization of all items on the Pocket PC if you log on and use a different profile to connect your Pocket PC to an Exchange mailbox.

You can download ActiveSync 3.1 from http://www.microsoft.com/pocketpc/downloads/activesync.asp, and Pocket PC vendors usually provide an ActiveSync CD-ROM with their devices. You need ActiveSync 3.1 to make USB connections, which only Windows 2000 and Windows 98 systems support. Pocket PCs don't support earlier versions of ActiveSync.

Like any other software, ActiveSync has bugs, so you need to regularly check Microsoft's Pocket PC Web site (http://www.microsoft.com/mobile/pocketpc) for updates. I've encountered only one problem with ActiveSync: When Win2K shuts down, ActiveSync and my PC docking station occasionally argue over which communications port ActiveSync is using. This disagreement can cause the docking station to freeze and not release the Pocket PC when I press the Eject button. The workaround is simple—just close the wcescomm.exe process before you shut down Win2K. This action frees the communications port.

Configuring Synchronization
During synchronization, the Pocket PC downloads new messages from the PC to the Inbox and sends messages that are waiting in the Outbox, and the Pocket PC and host system update Calendar appointments. You can use ActiveSync's Sync Mode options, which Figure 2 shows, to define when synchronization occurs. Options on the Sync Mode tab let you synchronize continuously, which means the Pocket PC and PC synchronize whenever data changes on either machine; upon connection, which means the devices synchronize when you connect the Pocket PC to the PC; or manually, which means the devices synchronize only when you click a command on the toolbar or file menu. I keep my Pocket PC in its cradle whenever I'm in the office, and I use the continuous mode to keep my Pocket PC's synchronization up-to-date. Your choice of sync modes can depend on your connection speed. Over a USB link, updates occur in a matter of minutes. Synchronization happens much more slowly over a serial connection, and even slower over infrared. An IMAP4 connection over a wireless link is faster than serial or infrared, but slower than USB. However, wireless is more convenient because the Pocket PC can receive email when it isn't attached to a cradle.

Synchronization conflicts occur when you change the same item on each device. ActiveSync uses Resolve Conflict, which Figure 3 shows, to alert you to such conflicts. In Figure 3, two appointments conflict. For each appointment, ActiveSync lets you skip the item or resolve the conflict by accepting either the version on the Pocket PC or the version on the PC.

Conflicts also happen when ActiveSync can't copy items to the Pocket PC without user intervention. For example, you can type a large amount of data, such as details from a meeting, into an Outlook Calendar item's Notes field. Pocket Calendar items support limited Notes, so any Outlook item that has a large note will create a conflict. You can decide to synchronize the item without its Notes data, which is usually the best way to resolve the conflict, or elect to skip the item. In this case, Pocket Calendar won't copy the item.

You can use ActiveSync's Rules options, which Figure 4 shows, to let the program resolve conflicts automatically. You can set ActiveSync to let you decide which version of a conflicted item to keep, or you can set the program to always replace the item on your Pocket PC or always replace the item on your PC. I prefer to resolve conflicts manually.

Pocket Outlook supports only the Inbox and Outbox folders, but you can view only the Inbox because the Outbox folder serves as the Pocket PC's holding point for messages waiting to go to the Exchange Server machine. Figure 5 shows a typical Pocket PC Inbox. Over an ActiveSync connection, Pocket Outlook supports messages in Rich Text Format (RTF) and HTML, although text appears in a uniform font and type size. Pocket Outlook has no options for bold, underlined, or colored type, and graphics disappear from messages and become attachments. If you use IMAP to connect to the server, the download process makes no attempt to translate the message's contents, so the message appears in raw HTML. When you download RTF content, messages are properly formatted.

If you install a suitable application, you can open and view graphics files on a Pocket PC, but Zip files are inaccessible because Windows CE doesn't support the format. A Pocket PC can download Secure MIME (S/MIME) messages, but you can't read them on the device because the Pocket PC can't access the keys necessary to decode the content. When you view an S/MIME message on a Pocket PC, you see an smime.p7m attachment that contains the encoded text. For more information about S/MIME messages, see Jan De Clercq, "Advanced Security in Exchange 2000, Part 2," http://www.win2000mag.com, InstantDoc ID 8333.

On a Pocket PC, you can't access subfolders (even subfolders of the Inbox) or any other folder that you've created in your mailbox. Pocket Outlook doesn't support public folders, but products that can deliver public-folder functionality are available from Extended Systems or PumaTech. Public folders are often associated with electronic forms or special views that display or organize data in the folder, so don't assume that these third-party products will deliver exactly the same user experience on a Pocket PC that you get on a PC. If you select a third-party product, test it against your data to confirm whether the product works in your environment.

Pocket PC Memory
In Pocket PCs, 32MB of RAM is sufficient for most purposes, and you can add extra memory if you want to carry around a very large Inbox. Extra memory is also handy if you need to work with a lot of information or work with more than three applications concurrently. Pocket PCs don't come with hard disks, and running applications are usually held in memory. Generally, I synchronize email from the past 5 days, which amounts to between 250 and 400 messages, and my Pocket PC doesn't need extra memory.

ActiveSync's Sync Options tab lets you define settings to control synchronization of each folder, including the Inbox. Figure 6, page 144, shows the Inbox Synchronization Settings dialog box, which contains settings to specify how many days' worth of email messages to copy, the maximum number of lines to copy for each message, and whether to copy attachments. The more data you download, the more of your Pocket PC's memory you use. The dialog box also lets you set your Pocket PC to automatically send any message in the Pocket PC's Outbox the next time you connect to the PC or network.

To Palm or Not to Palm?
Which is better: Pocket PCs or Palm portable computers? The answer depends on what you use the device for. Palm products are tremendously popular and traditionally outsell Windows CE computers by a considerable factor, perhaps reflecting the slowness and lack of capability of early versions of Windows CE and the devices those versions supported. However, Windows CE 3.0 is very usable, and manufacturing costs have come down enough to let companies economically produce reasonably high-powered devices. Although a variety of applications are available for Windows CE, an even larger variety of applications are available for the Palm OS—except in one instance.

Pocket PC devices' strongest advantage over Palm devices is the Pocket PC's compatibility between Microsoft Office applications and the Pocket versions of those applications. You can certainly download email or your schedule to a Palm device, but reading an email attachment can be difficult unless you install an optional product, such as DataViz's Documents To Go, that can read Office content. In contrast, Pocket PCs support standard features of applications such as Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel and can access the contents of most Word and Excel documents. For example, Figure 7 shows how a Word document appears on a Pocket Word screen. The text is readable, although the formatting is askew to accommodate the Pocket PC screen's size and shape. Some Word documents, such as those that include tables of more than four columns, can be difficult to read on a Pocket PC. Pocket Word tries to cope, but fitting a complex document into a small screen is sometimes too much of a challenge. The text is readable, but you need to guess where it goes.

Some attachments are too large to download to a Pocket PC, and Pocket PCs don't support Pocket PowerPoint (although that capability is coming). Pocket PCs also support Microsoft Reader for e-books, but viewing lengthy documents remains an activity that you can best accomplish on a large PC screen or a printed page.

Maybe a BlackBerry?
The success of the BlackBerry device with Exchange Server customers demonstrates a large amount of public interest in wireless connectivity. People like the BlackBerry's simplicity and appreciate the ability to receive email anywhere a network provider offers connectivity. The BlackBerry is still largely a North American solution, but RIM will soon support the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) and General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) mobile phone protocols, which will expand the scope and reach of these devices worldwide. The BlackBerry is a viable solution if you want to only send and receive email and you live where a carrier provides suitable wireless service. Although the BlackBerry's keyboard is small, a keyboard is a much easier way to create message text than tapping with a stylus or using handwriting recognition.

The BlackBerry's major advantage is its simplicity and size. You can't get anything more compact and straightforward to use as an email device, and the original BlackBerry device is so small that you can take it with you to check email anywhere, even when you're jogging. The most recent BlackBerry model features a larger screen, which makes reading email easier but moves away from the original device's pager-type size and style. The BlackBerry device is much easier on batteries than a Pocket PC. If you use the device constantly, you can expect to go weeks without changing batteries on a BlackBerry, compared with hours or perhaps a day for a Pocket PC. However, a Pocket PC lets you view Word and Excel attachments directly, whereas a BlackBerry can only forward messages and attachments to a fax machine for printing. This solution assumes that a fax connector is available for your Exchange server. Alternatively, you can wait until you get back to the office to look at the content.

Improving All the Time
The Pocket PC has reached a stage where it's more than just an interesting corporate toy (you can find some great Pocket PC utilities at http://www.pocketgear.com). I like having the ability to browse through my Inbox in places where I can't—or won't—boot up my notebook PC. (Have you noticed how easy it is to read email, documents, and presentations over a person's shoulder in an airplane when the person is using a notebook PC?) When I carry my Pocket PC, my Inbox, Contacts, and Calendar are available at the touch of a button, and I can work with Word and Excel attachments if I need to.

The BlackBerry is the best email mobility device; but if you want truly portable email and application access, you need the combination of a Pocket PC and Exchange Server, especially if you can use a wireless connection. A Pocket PC connected to a cellular phone does a reasonable job of reaching your Inbox on an Exchange Server machine, but after wireless connectivity becomes reality everywhere, the Pocket PC's extra features and growing maturity will make the battle among the access devices even harder to call.