Entelligence: Happy 10th birthday, Pocket PC

Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.

Microsoft introduced the world to Pocket PC on April 19th, 2000 at a relatively small gathering in Grand Central Station in New York City. Pocket PC was the company's response to Palm, which at that time was leading the PDA market -- for many geeks, using a personal digital assistant was indeed a public display of affection. I was at the launch event -- in fact, I was even quoted in the press release. Microsoft introduced four devices that day with their partners: the Casio EM500, the HP Jornada 545 & 548, the Symbol Technologies PPT2700, and the Compaq iPAQ. The iPAQ was the flagship of the Pocket PC line and the hottest handheld you could buy at the time: it had a slim form factor with "sleeves" that could be attached to add functionality such as Compact Flash or PCMCIA cards, a "fast" ARM processor and a killer indoor/outdoor screen. Availability was limited and prices on eBay quickly topped $1,000 for the scarce unit.

Microsoft's primary goal at the time was to do one thing: beat Palm. And at the time Pocket PC was introduced, Microsoft had the keys it needed for success. From music to books and games to maps and location service, the Pocket PC platform had it all, and the new devices, particularly the iPAQ, were like nothing else on the market. Microsoft was so focused on taking on Palm, however, that the company couldn't figure out how to change the message that Palm was so successfully telling the market. Even if the strategy was fundamentally correct, the short term tactics were ineffective. The net result was a team that went through countless re-organizations and was never able to drive platform forward with the innovation it needed -- as we all know, later revs of Window Mobile were mostly tweaks on the original platform.

Pocket PC may be no more, but there were some important lessons learned from what Microsoft attempted to do. The platform and hardware were a leap forward. With the inclusion of Windows Media Player and tight integration with the desktop, Pocket PC began to blur the lines of business and consumer functionality -- these were the first devices that could serve as a mobile office with email and Office applications, yet also offer games, music, and movies. Pocket PC was also the first platform to have a fully integrated e-book architecture, called Microsoft Reader. Sadly, Microsoft's total focus on Palm and the business market combined with later efforts to take on RIM and the BlackBerry meant that these features were ignored and totally shunned from most of the marketing. It wasn't until 2007 when Apple introduced the iPhone that attention refocused to the mass market consumer and not just the business market.

The world has moved from disconnected PDAs to connected phones and other devices, and most of the companies that showcased devices in New York have also moved on. HP's Jornada line died when the company merged with Compaq, and although HP still markets several Windows Phone devices under the iPAQ brand, the company is no longer considered an innovator in the space. After several other product introductions, Casio also gave up and is now just another footnote in the mobile market. And Microsoft is rebooting its mobile efforts entirely with Windows Phone 7 and Kin -- this time not in response to Palm, but to Apple. We'll see if the company can apply the lessons of the past 10 years to the next 10.

Michael Gartenberg is a partner at Altimeter Group. His weblog can be found at Contact him at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.