A Big Leap For Small Windows


The conventional wisdom says it takes Microsoft (MSFT ) three tries to get something right. Hitting the target with phones and wireless PDAs took longer, but Windows Mobile 5 does it. And with a variety of devices due out in coming months, Microsoft is becoming a huge player in a market that had been dominated by Palm (PALM ) and Research In Motion's (RIMM ) BlackBerry.

A key to the recent success was Microsoft's realization a couple of years ago that hardware companies knew more about device design than software engineers. So Microsoft stopped trying to dictate the design of Pocket PCs and Smartphones and freed hardware makers to innovate. The Audiovox PPC-6700, $480 with a two-year service contract from Sprint (FON ), shows that Microsoft made a wise choice.

The PPC-6700 is designed and made by Taiwan's HTC, which offers similar devices through wireless carriers around the world. It's about the size and shape of a pack of cards. The 1 3/4-in.-by-2 1/4-in. display works like many earlier Pocket PC Phone Edition products: You dial by using the keypad on the touch-sensitive screen. It gets more interesting when you slide the top of the PPC-6700 to the right to reveal a keyboard. Rotate the device to orient it horizontally, and you have a nice e-mail device with a keyboard bigger than those of a Palm Treo or a BlackBerry.

THE BIG SOFTWARE IMPROVEMENTS are in the integration of the keyboard, which was treated as an afterthought in earlier Windows Mobile versions. Even when a hardware keyboard was available on these older models, the software would occasionally determine that you needed to enter text and then cover half the screen with a virtual keyboard you were supposed to tap with a stylus. That annoying feature is gone. The new Windows Mobile lets you do just about everything from the keyboard, which makes the stylus all but obsolete -- and it eliminates the feeling that you need three hands to use the software. The PPC-6700 takes advantage of its extra keyboard space to add the familiar up, down, left, and right keys from a PC keyboard, a major convenience.

Still, Windows Mobile developers should study products from Palm and RIM if they want to make keyboard use natural. For example, both the Treo and BlackBerry have software that is smart enough to shift automatically to number mode when you type in a contact's phone number; the PPC-6700 makes you press the "symbols" shift key. The Treo also displays icons to tell you whether you have pressed the caps or symbols shift, which is nearly essential for entering complex passwords that don't appear on the screen. These are little things -- but small touches loom large in the area of usability, and their absence hurts the PPC-6700.

The device offers three forms of wireless: short-range Bluetooth, useful mainly with headsets; Wi-Fi; and Sprint's two data services ($15 a month for unlimited e-mail and Web browsing).

The standard data network, available everywhere, is adequate for handhelds, which typically don't require huge gulps of data. Sprint's high-speed EV-DO network is even better -- especially for Web browsing -- but it's available only in major cities, and inconsistently at that. As for Wi-Fi, mostly I found it a nuisance and turned the radio off. When left on, it not only sucks battery power but also annoyingly lets you know every time it senses a new network, whether you are looking for one or not. Switching between the different wireless services is also a clumsy business. In the end Wi-Fi seemed useful mainly in offices, homes, or hotspots where Sprint reception is poor.

Windows Mobile 5 is a big leap forward, and the PPC-6700 is a good product. But I'm holding out for the Windows Mobile Treo, due early next year from Palm and Verizon Wireless. Palm is the first Microsoft licensee that is permitted to modify the basic software. That, combined with Palm's Treo expertise, could give us the ultimate Windows Mobile product.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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