Desperately Seeking Simplicity

The new iPAQs run Microsoft software that seems better suited to IT pros than to ordinary users

Over the past several years, few products have inspired as much ambivalence in me as the line of iPAQ Pocket PCs from Compaq and now Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ). From the first model in 2000, the iPAQs have been marvels of design that are both clever and beautiful. But I've never really gotten comfortable with the Microsoft (MSFT ) Pocket PC software that ran on them. It has always seemed to try too hard to be a mini-Windows, in the process sacrificing the simplicity that remains the hallmark of Palm (PALM )-based handhelds.

For the most part, this trend continues in the two new iPAQs that I tested, which are the leading edge of a generation of handhelds based on what has been renamed Microsoft Mobile for Pocket PC 2003 software. The newest iPAQs, both the thin, 5.1-oz. h2215 and the 7.3-oz. h5500 with built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking, are elegant products with big, bright screens and well-thought-out controls. Unfortunately, the software, while improved in many ways, still seems designed more for corporate information-technology professionals than for ordinary users.

Both models that I tested come with built-in Bluetooth short-range wireless. Bluetooth has a deserved reputation for being difficult to set up, but HP has eased the process with a set of wizards that give step-by-step instructions. Using the wizard -- plus a bit of help from the AT&T Wireless (AWE ) Web site -- I was able to get the h2215 to connect to the Internet through my Sony (SNE ) Ericsson (ERICY ) T68i Bluetooth phone. Using Bluetooth to sync information with a Windows PC is more complex because of the limited Bluetooth support in Windows XP. But once it was set up, it worked beautifully.

Wi-Fi is a less happy story. Although Pocket PC 2003 automatically detects networks like Windows XP, configuring and managing network connections can be difficult. I found that working on my corporate wireless network, I had to configure the iPAQ one way to get mail and a different way to get onto the Web. Pocket PC 2003 includes two flavors of virtual-private-network software. This should let you get through most corporate firewalls, although you may need help setting up a VPN connection. I don't think Wi-Fi is the ideal wireless option for handhelds (BW -- June 16), but if you want it, the simpler Palm Tungsten C is probably a better choice for those handling their own setups.

To some extent, the complexity of Pocket PC's networking is a price you have to pay for its power. But I can't think of any excuse for Microsoft's failure to remedy Pocket PC's miserable handling of Microsoft Office files. You can't do anything with PowerPoint presentations unless you buy third-party software. The mishandling of Word files is shameful. If a document contains fonts not available on the Pocket PC, Pocket Word chooses the closest substitute. That's fine for display purposes, but if the file is edited and sent back to a PC, the original font selections are lost. Even worse, any tables included in Word documents are mangled beyond recognition or repair. Nearly every Palm-based handheld comes with either DataVizDocuments To Go or Cutting Edge Software's Quickoffice, and both allow even complex Word files to make a successful trip from a PC to a Palm and back. It's hard to explain why Microsoft hasn't done better. (TextMaker from SoftMaker Software, which I have not tested, claims to solve the problem on Pocket PCs.)

That said, the iPAQs have a lot of attractive features. The h2215, priced at $400, has slots for both SD and CompactFlash memory cards. The h5500, listed at $650, has an SD slot and works with the existing array of iPAQ accessory sleeves. Either way, you can add plenty of storage or additional communications options, such as wireless phone modems. Each has a removable battery, especially handy when using power-hungry Wi-Fi. Future Pocket PCs, including new models from HP, will take advantage of an important feature of the new software: support for integrated keyboards like those on BlackBerries and the newest Palms.

Corporate IT departments like Pocket PCs for their flexibility and security, and because they can use familiar Windows tools to develop custom programs. They have a lot of features with appeal to consumers, too, but they come with a lot of offputting complexity that may give you pause if you can't turn to the help desk when you run into problems.


Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.