The Handspring Treo 600 is an example of how good design happens when you get a lot of little things right. Its bigger stable mate from Sprint PCS (PCS ), the Hitachi G1000, is a painful example of what happens when you get a lot of little things, and some big things, wrong.
The Hitachi ($649 with service, vs. the Treo 600's estimated $500) is the latest in a line of mediocre-and-worse phone-PDA combinations based on Microsoft's Pocket PC software and the first Pocket PC to include a built-in keyboard. Some of the G1000's problems result from its physical design. It's huge, nearly twice the size of the Treo 600 and way too big to be really practical as a phone. Most women, and many men, will find their hands too small even to hold it comfortably. The keyboard is stuck all the way at the bottom of the device, below the big 5-inch display, resulting in a seriously top-heavy design that makes it hard to type.
The real problem with the keyboard, though, is that it's integrated only in a physical sense. The Pocket PC software wasn't designed for use with a keyboard and doesn't support it well. A newer version of the Microsoft (MSFT ) software, Pocket PC 2003, does offer this support, but devices with keyboards using the 2003 software won't appear until late this year.
A few examples suffice to show the difficulties. When you enter contact information, neither the return key nor the "down" button moves you to the next data field. You have to tap the field with a stylus. The device isn't smart enough to realize that the phone-number field requires a numerical entry and automatically activate the number keys. And there's no number lock, so you have to hold down a shift key for each keystroke.
The miniature keyboards on the Treo, Research in Motion's (RIMM ) BlackBerry, and other devices use a clever feature called autotext that allows you type abbreviations that are automatically expanded. For example "il" and "dont" become "I'll" and "don't." The G1000 offers suggestions to complete words as you type, but since you have no way on the keyboard to accept the offer -- you must tap the suggestion with the stylus -- it doesn't help much. I could go on.
In fairness, most of this isn't Hitachi's (HIT ) fault. Microsoft has been a notorious control freak, giving Pocket PC licensees very little flexibility to customize the software. For example, the G1000 weirdly maintains an on-screen keyboard (mercifully, it mostly stays hidden) because the Pocket PC specification requires it.
This is a very sharp contrast to what's happening in the Palm world. PalmSource, the soon-to-be independent software arm of Palm Inc. (PALM ), has given its licensees great latitude for customization and has worked closely with them to enable such innovations as one-handed operation of the Treo 600 and location-based features on the iQue from Garmin (GRMN ).
The result, even in a very difficult market, has been a burst of creativity in Palm-based products, including the Treo, the iQue, and the forthcoming Tapwave Zodiac game player. Meanwhile, the Pocket PC market is dominated by commodity products and a price war between Dell (DELL ) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ).
Eventually, a Pocket PC device will combine phone and data functions well. But I'm not holding my breath.
By Stephen H. Wildstrom