The success of Pocket PCs in industrial markets

What's he talking about now? Industrial markets? Industrial markets are boring. They may be to consumers, but from what I can tell, vertical and industrial markets is where it's at these days with the Pocket PC platform. While it's becoming increasingly rare to find a new "traditional" Pocket PC without a tiny screen and a phone, camera and GPS receiver shoehorned into it, and while the influx of new consumer Pocket PC models seems at an all-time low, the industrial markets are absolutely in love with Windows Mobile.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of talking with Mark Chellis, director of marketing at Symbol Technologies of Holtsville, NY. The reason for the talk was that Symbol has sold 500,000 MC9000 rugged handhelds in just three years. That's half a million of just one of their many lines of Windows Mobile devices. Not a bad number at all, especially considering that Symbol's rugged industrial handhelds cost quite a bit more than your garden-variety loss leader PPC down at Circuit City.

What makes commercial and industrial grade Pocket PCs so successful while their consumer market brethren are struggling and trying to morph into little phones?

I think the answer is actually quite simple. In the consumer space, Microsoft has very successfully convinced us that nothing but Windows proper will do. No matter what the size of a computer, it better run Windows XP, all of it, or it's not a real computer. Want a pen slate? No problemo, we'll just serve up a version of Windows XP that can be operated with a pen, sort of. Still too big? Get a UMPC, an Ultra Mobile PC that's even smaller than a Tablet PC and you operate it with a stylus or your fingers. But it, too, has Windows XP in it, all of it.

Pocket PCs don't have real Windows XP in it, and that is, in the eyes of many, the problem. Sure, at some point Microsoft may have believed in a small, simple Palm fighter, but every new rev since Windows CE 1.0 has looked more and more like desktop Windows. Same for the mobile versions of Office apps. The thrust there is not to optimize them for the small screen, but to make them as compatible with the real thing as possible. You see the dilemma: Unless they run Windows XP on the Pocket PC, the PPC will never measure up, especially since the original idea of a PDA has long since been abandoned. Hence the Pocket PC as we knew it is morphing into something else and no one is quite sure what that should be.

So why is the Windows Mobile platform so successful in vertical markets? Because vertical market devices are tools for specific jobs, and they are used as such. A mobile worker in an industrial field will view his or her Windows Mobile powered handheld as a terrific productivity tool and not as a crippled wannabe little computer that can't do XP stuff. And have you taken a look at some of those vertical market Pocket PCs lately?

Whereas it's been a while since I've been truly excited over a commercial or business Pocket PC model -- most of the recent ones are exceedingly ho-hum and boring -- industrial devices are innovative, forward-looking, and often feature terrific industrial design. If you take a look at some of the industrial Pocket PCs by the likes of Symbol Technologies or Intermec, you'll be surprised. Symbol's MC50 and MC70 rugged PPCs are not only exceptionally well built, they even look better than the latest iPAQs. The same goes for Intermec's CN and CK models. And let's not even talk what Casio is offering. The same company that withdrew its once terrific lineup of Pocket PCs from the US market makes an "industrial" Pocket PC with a full VGA display, a battery that lasts 27 hours, and that sports an IP54 ingress protection rating, meaning it's nearly indestructible. All for under a grand.

It's telling that Symbol's marketing guru Mark Chellis who once worked for Compaq is now promoting mobile technology in industrial markets. Most of the best marketing and design talent in the mobile space is now working for industrial companies. That's because this is where the money and the action is.

While the commercial market can't figure out if Pocket PCs should be mobile companions, mobile media companions, media mobile assistants, multi-media connected assistants, dad's lil' tech helper or whatever, the industrial types got it all figured out. Windows Mobile is an awesome software platform for small, dedicated tools for real jobs. The devices they create are true productivity tools, yet come with all the hooks and APIs needed to let them communicate and do all the cool stuff regular PPCs do. But they can also scan, read mag stripes, image, do RFID, double up as phones, and even as walkie-talkies. And -- oops -- if you drop it and a truck runs over it, no big deal.

None of this means that I am counting out the consumer market Pocket PC. While I truly fear for the endlessly appealing original concept of a PDA, Pocket PCs will likely re-emerge stronger and better than ever. Right now they are in a slump. Consumer PPC makers should look at the vertical and industrial market for inspiration and ideas, because right now those guys are doing a much better job. Go take a look at Symbol and Intermec's industrial handhelds and you know what I mean.

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