Cell Phones and Pocket PCs—Merging Technology?

Two press releases caught my eye this week. One, from the GSM Association, announced that more than half a *billion* people now own Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM)-based digital cell phones. That's one digital cell phone for every 12 people on the planet! The second press release came from Microsoft, announcing the shipment of the one-millionth Pocket PC.

I find comparing the two press releases illuminating. For every 500 or so GSM phones in use, there's only one Pocket PC. Granted, Pocket PC doesn't rank as the most popular mobile computer—about 10 times as many Palm OS-based devices have been sold. Even so, as the popularity of digital cell phones explodes, pocket-sized computers remain boutique items. (Microsoft's release mentions "high-margin, high-end device\[s\]".) Digital cell phones appeal to nearly everyone.

Will the two technologies converge? Microsoft seems to think so—witness the tremendous effort invested in the project code-named Stinger, a "smart phone" with built-in Pocket PC-like functionality, and the Microsoft Mobile Explorer, a browser for "feature phones" that supports both Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) and HTML.

I don't share Microsoft's expectations—not yet, anyway. Price makes a big difference, and when I inquired about the probable retail price of Stinger and other smart phones, I got extremely vague answers. I suspect that the number of people who'll pay a substantial amount extra for Pocket PC-like functionality in a cell phone probably compares to the number who've bought Pocket PCs or Palm OS devices—that is, a tiny fraction of those who'll buy basic cell phones. If vendors can add such functionality without substantially raising the basic price, however, everyone will clamor for it.

Another aspect of the two products bears consideration: ease of use. GSM phones are so popular, in part, because they're easy to use, both for basic mobile-phone functionality and for simple applications such as text messaging. Pocket PCs, however, can pose complicated challenges—as anyone who's tried to use one for Web browsing will agree. Pocket PCs operate very much like miniature PCs; to achieve widespread use, they must be idiot-proofed.

Yet I congratulate both the GSM Association and Microsoft on achieving these technologies. GSM is making an ever-larger impact in the United States; AT&T Wireless recently decided to overlay GSM with its existing Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA)-based digital cellular network, increasing GSM coverage and drawing it closer to becoming a viable nation-wide standard. And Microsoft deserves praise for sticking with the Pocket PC (and its Windows CE OS) despite slow early sales. Persistence will pay off in the end!

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