Is my Pocket PC really useful?

In a recent email to the eclectic group of uebernerds that comprises the contributors to Smartphone and Pocket PC, Hal Goldstein, enduring czar of all things mobile, inquired as to how we use Windows Mobile software in our work. The most brilliant exploits will presumably be featured in the magazine as examples of how to use Windows Mobile software to increase one's effectiveness and thus save and improve the business world as we know it.

That made me think. I've been using PDAs since the first Newton was unveiled in the summer of 1993. I wrestled useful handwriting recognition from it when most everyone blasted and even lampooned it. I used the NewtonMail communications service when the world still equated the word "spam" with a yummy meat product in a can. Later I recorded thought processes and business ideas on my beloved Casio M500. Yes, that included whole business plans and some of those insights into life that pop up and don't wait til you sit in front of a keyboard. Much of that originated on planes, in hotel rooms, even in bars. I'd later assemble those precious morsels into documents. That was a really good use of Windows Mobile -- Windows CE then -- software. But am I putting Windows Mobile software to good use today? I am not so sure....

Truth be told, I don't think so. See, I think what has happened is that like so many, the stampede away from the "traditional" PDA has rattled my confidence in what I once considered the most personable of all computers. When the term PDA was coined, I truly believed in the concept. A little black box that contained all of your most personal data, had all the information you needed and wanted, helped you find and organize things, helped you stay in touch with your friends and associates. The early PDAs were meant to be all that. NewtonMail kept you in touch, and it did. Magic Cap let you send friendly "postcards" with sound and animations. "Telescript" intelligent agents were going to find and do things for you on the internet, then report back.

All that never happened. The grand mobile plan of the PDA visionaries never happened. Instead, we got Pocket PCs as little shuttle craft to mothership Windows. They've developed into able companions and they served as technology demonstrations for a lot of the stuff that is now on the verge of making it big: mobile multimedia, mobile TV, interactive entertainment devices. And so on. But it's equally clear that it won't be Pocket PCs that'll carry the flag. No, the phone companies managed to snatch away the prize. Sure, millions of traditional and very capable PDAs will continue to be sold, but there will be hundreds of millions of video/movie/teleconferencing smartphones and such. Nice, but not what I wanted or expected.

Why do I have a problem with that? Because a little device I can watch TV on is not what I had in mind. It's not a PDA. It really belongs to the phone company. It is not the most personal of all PCs that I always wanted. It's not my device that I use to help me in business and in life. It's just a beeping nuisance that soon enough will pipe endless spam and other crap into my pocket or wherever I carry the thing. Sure, it doesn't have to be that bad, and hopefully it won't. But I hope you see the difference of a true personal digital assistant (you can call it Pocket PC if you like) and a beeping multimedia terminal in your pocket.

As a result of all this I must admit that I am not using my Pocket PC nearly as much as I should. Sure, I marvel at some of the business software now available for the platform. And my personal favorite, the HP iPAQ 4700, is a truly marvelous machine. I still carry it almost everywhere. But I no longer get excited over software that can almost do what a notebook can. That's because when I really want to do those task, I use the real thing on a Tablet PC or a ultra-portable notebook that uses real Windows. Yes, you suspected right: I am still bitter than Microsoft turned Windows Mobile nothing more than a mini-me version of the real thing.

So I still take the iPAQ with me to quickly check email and a few websites. I still carry my most important documents with me. And a bunch of pictures and voice clips. But my biggest business use hasn't changed since the day of my first Newton. It's a simple to-do list. Yes, I carry all my to-dos on my Pocket PC. Hundreds, in dozens of categories. Sure, I have a bunch of terrific whiz-bang apps on it, too. But the to-do utility provides the most value-added to my business life.

I realize that this is a pretty somber assessment of the usefulness of a Pocket PC. Especially when there are hundreds and hundreds of truly great apps out there. I reviewed many of them and loved them. But I don't use them as much as I should. Most likely that's because my brain rebels against the path Microsoft has chosen for Windows Mobile and Pocket PCs, and because I still mourn what the PDA really could have been.

I too don't use the Pocket PC as often as one might expect for business use given my position and access to software. I use the basic Outlook sync'd stuff, of course. eWallet is a must to keep track of all my numbers, passwords, unlock codes. When I travel I use it to review and update docs and spreadsheets. On and off I use a List manager. The rest is for entertainment (music, talks, ebooks, and video).

Perhaps, in another post you can elaborate about what the Pocket PC should have been, what you mean by it is just a mini-me. Maybe, a Tablet or Ultra Portable is best suited for other kind of work, and the Pocket PC is what it should be.

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