Palm To Palm Combat

Microsoft enters the market for handhelds, but its software could still use some work

Simplicity, of all things, is the hardest to be copied.

--Sir Richard Steele

Microsoft is the master of bringing others' ideas to a mass market, sometimes improving them in the process. Simplicity, however, has never been highly esteemed in Redmond, Wash. The latest palmtop computers are a case in point.

Inspired by the success of 3Com's Palm line of handheld computers, Microsoft has provided the software and a basic design that lets various companies produce their own Palm clones. After a legal wrangle with 3Com over ownership of the word "palm," Microsoft has dubbed the rivals "Palm-size PCs." Superficially, the devices bear a strong resemblance to Palm products. I tried Casio's Cassiopeia E-10; others will be made by Everex Systems, Philips Electronics, and Palmax Technology.

The Cassiopeia, due in stores in June, is a bit bigger than 3Com's new Palm III in each dimension, and outweighs it by an ounce at 7.2 oz. It has a 240x320-pixel monochrome display, compared with the Palm's 160x160. But both devices provide the same core functions of organizing contacts, a calendar, and to-do lists. Information can be swapped with a desktop computer by setting the Cassiopeia in a cradle.

CREATIVE DIFFERENCES. Behind these similar designs lie different philosophies. Palm has always focused on doing a few things well. Although independent software developers have added capabilities ranging from Internet E-mail to Web browsing to car navigation, the limited display has forced programmers to keep their designs extremely simple. Most Palm software is intuitively easy to use.

The Palm-size PC, on the other hand, is the latest incarnation of Microsoft's Windows ce operating system and shows it. The screen comes complete with icons, menus, toolbars, and, yes, a Start menu. Even with three times as many pixels, I found the overall effect cluttered and confusing. The icons are tiny and, without color, difficult to differentiate. The menus work much better than Palm's, although they sometimes offer too many choices.

The Windows ce software offers an Internet E-mail program and limited Web browser. The mail program can synchronize with the inbox on a desktop computer, but only if you use Microsoft Outlook or Exchange for your mail. It also can handle mail remotely through a dial-up connection, but I couldn't test this feature because the $100 Cassiopeia modem is not yet available.

When hooked to a desktop computer, the Web browser can download content from specific sites or "channels" designed for the small display. Tests worked fine using the only available channel, msnbc. The real power of this feature will be in downloading specialized content, such as daily price lists or inventory reports, from an internal corporate Web site.

The complexity of the Microsoft programs is tough on resources. Although Cassiopeia's nec vr4111 processor is far more powerful than Palm's Motorola DragonBall, the E-10 often responds slowly to commands. And I ran through a pair of aaa batteries in a week, vs. at least a month in my Palm III.

The Cassiopeia has considerable strengths. As on the Palm, you enter information either by tapping a stylus on a minuscule on-screen keyboard or, far more easily, by writing a kind of shorthand in one area of the screen. You have a further choice between a natural character set, which amounts to standard printed letters, and a "simplified uppercase alphabet," which is a dead ringer for Palm's Graffiti. Both worked well. In a neat feature, the Jot Character Recognizer software guesses at the word you're trying to write, and you can accept the suggestion with a tap of the stylus. A built-in sound system enables you to record six minutes of voice messages.

Cassiopeia fares less well with ergonomics. Microsoft has made much of a design that allows two buttons and a rocker switch, for scrolling, to be mounted on the side for one-handed operation. But you need really big hands to use the device comfortably. And if you are right-handed, you'll have to work the buttons and rocker with your left thumb.

The Palm-size PC is in the Microsoft tradition of not-very-good first versions. But the company also has a history of improving products quickly. Microsoft and its partners already have better designs in the works--and so does Palm. This is one competition where consumers are the sure winners.

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