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Report from Redmond


Oct 17, 2002, 7:00 PM   by Rich Brome

Microsoft Mobius 2002. The latest scoop on Windows Powered Smartphone, Pocket PC Phone Edition, and everything Microsoft and Mobile. Reporting direct from Microsoft HQ.


If you've been following the industry lately, you've probably heard a few things about Microsoft's current push into the mobile market. The most visible part of Microsoft's strategy in this area are their two mobile operating systems: Pocket PC Phone Edition and Windows Powered Smartphone. Pocket PC Phone Edition is pretty straightforward - it's simply Pocket PC 2002 with integrated wireless data and voice features. Smartphone is the new kid on the block; it is, in many ways, a whole new class of device. This report will cover both OSs, but with an emphasis on Smartphone, since it is probably of most interest to people on this site. (And the PDA sites do a much better job of covering the Pocket PC devices.)

What Is Mobius?

The Internet is jam-packed with independent sites dedicated to, well, just about anything you can imagine - phonescoop.com being a perfect example. Some sites deal with products or services from specific companies. Different companies have varied approaches to this. Fortunately, Microsoft is not only cooperative - they actually reach out and actively support these online communities.

Mobius is an event that embodies that strategy. Microsoft flew about 25 of us web geeks out to Redmond for a weekend. We listened to a parade of Microsoft people talk about their latest stuff, we got to ask questions of Microsoft product managers, and we gave Microsoft some feedback about their products. It was also a great opportunity to get to know each other, talk about the mobile industry, and just hang out.

Naturally, Microsoft doesn't do this just to be nice - they want good "grass roots" publicity, and so this is sort of a guerilla-marketing thing. But it's not totally self-serving for them, either. Open communication and strong communities help everyone be better-informed, which benefits everyone.

Unfortunately, but understandably, Microsoft wasn't able to share much with us in the way of unannounced products. But they were able to give us a complete picture of their strategy, in relatively non-marketing terms, which I found quite helpful. They were also able to answer our questions. So I'll try to give you as unbiased a report as I can, framed in the context of the mobile phone industry. Hopefully you'll find some interesting and useful information in the following pages.

Just to be totally clear and up-front - this report is from an all-expenses-paid trip to Redmond, paid for by Microsoft. I'm not publishing this because Microsoft wanted me to, (there was no request or obligation for me to publish anything,) but because I think readers of this site might find this information interesting, and perhaps even helpful. I'm sure Microsoft is happy I'm doing this, but I've tried to be an unbiased as possible. In case there's any subconscious bias here, at least you can judge this artcle with full knowledge of the context, and interpret it as you see fit. Now with that out of the way, on to the report!

OS Editions 

As I mentioned earlier, Pocket PC Phone Edition is fairly straightforward. It's Microsoft's OS for handhelds with integrated wireless capability. The integration is fairly smooth, with everything linked where it should be. For example, some phones can automatically parse phone numbers out of SMS messages and provide links to call that number. Pocket PC Phone Edition also parses out and links e-mail addresses and web addresses throughout the OS.

The Pocket PC OS is based on Microsoft's Windows CE architecture. While a fundamentally different low-level architecture than the desktop versions of Windows, Windows CE platforms still have string ties to the desktop versions in several keys areas.

This gives Pocket PC its three main strengths: First, the interface is familiar. It's different, but only where necessary for the handheld paradigm. It's mostly intuitive, although there are a few inconsistencies. (Such as the fact that some items in the "menu bar" bring up menus, while others act like buttons, with no visible distinction between the two.)

Second, it's highly compatible. For example, you can simply drop a GIF, JPEG, or BMP image in a special folder on your desktop and connect a USB cable, and the image is automatically copied to your handheld via ActiveSync. A few taps on your handheld, and it's now your wallpaper. In Phone Edition, you can also do the same with WAV files for ringtones. Here are a couple good examples what you can do with WAV-format ringtones:

(Sound files no longer available)

These are real Pocket PC Phone Edition ringtones, that are either included on the device, or are available as a free download. They sound about the same on the device as they probably do on your PC.

The third advantage is probably the least visible at the outset, but the most important overall. That is the developer community. Obviously, the general Windows developer community is gargantuan. Those developers can use the same tools and languages to build mobile applications that they currently use for desktop applications. Developer support is a crucial factor in the success of any major platform, and thanks to their Windows ties, Pocket PC and Smartphone both enjoy an advantage in this area from day one.

Closely related is the advantage in the corporate space. The vast majority of major corporations already have a siginificant investment in Microsoft technologies for both turnkey and custom corporate applications. Pocket PC integrates well with those Windows-based corporate systems. Microsoft has gone to great lengths to make it easy for corporations to extend their in-house systems to Pocket PC devices for mobile employees.

Enter Smartphone

So how is Windows Powered Smartphone different? The key difference is that Smartphone devices are designed to be phones first and foremost. The form factors (size and shape) will be much closer to that of regular high-end phones, and not much at all like typical handhelds or even the small phone/PDA combo devices.

Right: A quick size comparison. The pictured Smartphone (on the right) is a reference design co-developed by Microsoft and Texas Instruments, and manufactured by Compal.

Windows Powered Smartphones have traditional phone keypads, as opposed to a touch-screen and stylus. The devices are designed for one-handed operation, just like any cell phone. Text entry is via T9 predictive text. Instead of a menu bar and Start menu, navigation is designed around a required joystick and two softkeys. Smartphones also feature "home" and "back" buttons.

The displays, a crucial component, will be smaller than that of a Pocket PC, but higher resolution than most current high-end phones. The required display resolution for Smartphone is 176 by 220 pixels (color or greyscale).

Unfortunately, Smartphone does not include Microsoft's ClearType technology. (Pocket PC does.) ClearType is a text anti-aliasing (smoothing) technology optimized for LCD displays. I'm a big fan of ClearType - I use it on both my laptop and my Pocket PC Phone Edition, and I think it makes a significant difference. I think it would be especially useful on the small Smartphone displays (small relative to a laptop or handheld), but I guess the assumption is that most people won't be reading great lengths of text on a Smartphone, so they won't care if it doesn't look so great.

Another key difference will be price. Pocket PC devices are not known for being cheap - Smartphones supposedly will be. Microsoft doesn't actually design or manufacture these devices, but to help kick-start the market, they do have their own team of hardware engineers for Smartphone. In addition to speeding up hardware development, they have supposedly come up with some creative ways to produce these devices at some surprising price points.

So those are the main differences. However, I think the most compelling aspect of Smartphone is how similar it is to Pocket PC...

First of all, the processor architecture is the same. Many Pocket PCs use the ARM architecture. Smartphones also use standard ARM9 (or ARM7) processors. The first devices use OMAP processors from Texas Instruments, which integrate DSP functionality with an ARM9 processor. The OMAP processors are fast. We got a chance to see some live game demos on a Smartphone, and it was extremely impressive. 3D graphics and full-screen motion were no problem at all for the device. More about that later...

Second, the OS is virtually the same from the "inside" (for the developer). Most Pocket PC applications could actually be ported to Smartphone in less than a day. It's really just a matter of scaling down for the smaller display, and optimizing navigation for a joystick and soft keys, instead of a stylus. There is a very sizeable Pocket PC development community, and it will be exciting to see applications ported to Smartphone as the platform grows.

Also just like Pocket PC, there is a file system, and you can download and email all sorts of files and use them for things like ringtones and wallpaper, or view documents with viewer applications.

On the software side, Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player are included on both platforms. This version of Pocket Internet Explorer supports both HTML and Wireless Internet standards, such as WAP and i-Mode. There is also a Flash plug-in available, which I'll talk more about later...

Windows Media Player is particularly exciting, because it supports both audio and video, both local and streaming, and in a large array of formats. Streaming audio and video is obviously a very cool feature, but even downloaded multimedia becomes interesting when you consider that these devices have SD expansion slots. With the right compression and a big enough memory card, you could actually watch a full-length movie on one of these devices - there is no fixed limit to length of audio or video they will play. And yes - it plays MP3s - more about that later as well...

Customization / Carriers 


As I touched on before, Pocket PCs and Smartphones are highly customizable. This is perfectly in line with the current trends in mobile phones. The use of GIF, JPEG and WAV files makes customizing a Smartphone extremely easy for anyone comfortable with Windows.

Microsoft even offers a free Pocket PC Theme Generator for Windows that gives you fine-grained control over your desktop image, and also lets you create a matching color scheme for the interface elements. It's fairly straightforward to use, although it's a bit buggy - it doesn't work at all if you have your display DPI set to 120 or some other high setting.

But beyond ringtones and wallpaper, and the ability to add new applications, there is also the Home Screen. Much like the "Today" screen on Pocket PCs, the Home screen summarizes key information in one place. But Smartphone takes the concept further by allowing customized XML-based Home screens, which can include device info (signal strength, etc.), carrier branding and color scheme, and even intelligent plug-ins containing logic and information culled from databases. Carriers can use this feature to provide a distinctive personality for the Smartphones they sell. Speaking of carriers...

The Role of Carriers

While both Pocket PC and Smartphone are powerful, feature-rich platforms, people who follow cell phone features closely might be surprised by some of the features that are not included. For example, Bluetooth, voice dialing, ringer ID, picture ID, and MMS are not part of either OS. The reason given by Microsoft is that these operating systems are merely foundations to build on, not turnkey solutions.

Therefore, it is up to the manufacturers to add features like voice dialing and Bluetooth, and it is up to carriers to add features like ringer ID, picture ID, and MMS. The idea is that carriers can basically create their own devices a-la-carte. The OS comes from Microsoft, the hardware comes from a contract manufacturer, and additional software to round out the feature set comes from in-house programmers or third-party developers.

This strategy has already become evident with the Pocket PC Phone Edition manufactured by HTC. AT&T's Siemens SX56 comes with a much more robust software suite than the T-Mobile version. One key feature added by AT&T is the ability for corporations to "push" configuration info and updates to employees' Pocket PCs automatically over-the-air (OTA).

But Smartphone gives carriers even more control. The OTA features mentioned above are built-in with Smartphone. At any time, carriers can connect to the device wirelessly and manage the registry, file system, and metabase. This is handy for things like configuring GPRS - it can be done totally automatically, without fiddling with tricky settings.

Another very cool feature is the ability to do OTA ROM updates. So when new versions of the Smartphone OS are released, carriers can actually push the update out to the phones automatically, instead of requiring customers to bring their phone into a retail store or service center to be updated.

But it goes further... Carriers can also choose to lock down the Smartphones that they sell, so that only "approved" (digitally signed) applications can be installed on the device. Even if carriers opt not to do this at first, they can force this change at any time via an OTA update. This introduces a whole new type of "locking" to limit consumers' ability to use their devices as they see fit.

So, if carriers leave their devices "unlocked" as far as applications, the platform is powerful enough that you could simply add applications yourself, a-la-carte, to basically create a phone with the exact features you want. (With SDIO cards, this even extends to hardware.) But if carriers lock their Smartphones, (which most probably will,) you're totally dependent on the carrier to include, or make available, applications that provide the features you want.

Cool Stuff 

There are some particularly cool things I liked about Phone Edition and Smartphone. Most of these apply to both platforms, since they are so similar internally.


As I touched on earlier, the performance of the ARM architecture is impressive. Pocket PC is slowly moving toward the new Intel xScale architecture, (and Intel just announced new xScale processors for cell phones,) but the ARM architecture holds its own quite well against xScale. (In fact, xScale performance has been downright disappointing so far, but I digress...)

It's not much use trying to explain the performance in words, so here are a couple of video clips that I think demonstrate it well:

QuickTime format

QuickTime format

Of course, games are always a good benchmark of performance, particularly for graphics. These are two games by Digital Concepts that really showcase the power of the ARM architecture and the Pocket PC / Smartphone platforms. While it may seem to only show the graphics capability, the Bust'em game actually employs some intense particle physics, and the Motocross game uses voxels for 3D rendering, so there is some significant non-graphics processing going on there as well. These videos are from a Pocket PC Phone Edition, but I have seen these same games demonstrated on a Smartphone, and the graphics are equally impressive on that platform.

As you can see in both videos, I'm using the stylus for control, but you can also use the buttons. Also as you can see, Motocross Stunt Racer can be configured to run in landscape mode. Since the HTC Phone Edition device has buttons at both ends, it is actually excellent for two-handed gaming.


Another really cool feature of both operating systems is multi-tasking. In particular, when you "close" an application, it actually remains open in the background. While this makes it easy to fill up your memory pretty quickly, it also lets you do several things at once. For example, you could sync your contacts over-the-air with an Exchange server, while having several IM sessions going, while playing a game in the foreground, all while listening to MP3s in the background! Of course you'd probably only ever do that to impress your friends, but isn't that half the reason you buy a phone like this anyway?

Developer Community

It goes without saying that there are an awful lot of developers out there who are familiar with programming for the Windows platform. Those developers can use all the same tools and languages to program for Microsoft's mobile operating systems, as well. In fact, there is already a considerable community of Pocket PC developers.

And as I mentioned earlier, Smartphone is very similar to Pocket PC from a developer's perspective - it takes less than a day to port most applications from Pocket PC to Smartphone. Therefore, there is the potential for a plethora of applications for that platform as well (if the carriers allow it, of course.) That is a huge strength of Smartphone - it may be the new kid on the block, but it will come to the table backed by an army of developers from day one.

And speaking of moving from Pocket PC to Smartphone, it's worth mentioning that Internet Explorer for Smartphone will automatically re-size and display web pages designed for Pocket PC. So web developers can easily create one page that will display well on both platforms, despite the different screen resolutions.

.NET Compact Framework

What is .NET? Well, it's basically about software that connects well with other software. .NET Compact Framework (.NET CF) is that concept, applied to Pocket PC; it's a framework for developers to quickly and easily write web-services-enabled applications. (If you're still reading this, congratulations! Most people would have tuned out a few buzzwords ago.) As actual software, .NET CF is a small (1.5MB) piece of code that resides on the Pocket PC. The end-user never sees it, but it's a very powerful tool for applications.

An example scenario might be an online auction tracker. You would have a small application installed on you Pocket PC for tracking online auctions. It would use .NET CF to talk to a web service provided by the online auction site. The application could display periodic auction updates. Because it wouldn't use the browser or have to load whole web pages, it would be faster and use much less bandwidth, saving you money on your wireless bill.


One thing that I haven't seen much talk about, but I think is very exciting, is Flash Player for Pocket PC. However many current and future Pocket PC developers there might be, there is a still a certain level of programming skill one needs to create compelling games and applications. Flash opens up the platform to a much wider community of potential developers.

And the Pocket PC Flash player even supports HTTP functions, so Flash applications can be Internet-enabled. This makes it really easy to write games you can play against other people over the Internet, and even applications with a web-services-like back-end. Just as with .NET CF and web services, converting a mobile web site to Flash would allow for a much richer interface, using far less bandwidth.

And, as always with Flash, the files are very small, and it can scale to nearly any size. It's pretty easy to create one small Flash file that will run equally well on desktop PCs, Pocket PCs, and Smartphones.

Email Attachments

Email with attachments is an increasingly common feature on high-end smart-phones in general. But again, Windows Powered Smartphone is designed to bring that kind of feature to a much smaller size and lower price point than any phone before. And the use of standard file formats in the OS makes it very powerful.

For example, I could record a voice note on my Pocket PC, and send it to your Smartphone in an email (this is very easy with Pocket Outlook). Then you could make it your ringtone. You could then capture a screenshot of a game, and send it to me. I could then save that and make it my wallpaper. I could then send a Flash game to you, and you could play it.

In fact, I think the ability to easily email Flash files between Smartphones and Pocket PCs is awesome. Most people have received Flash files, or links to Flash files, in emails that get passed around the Internet like wildfire. Bringing that kind of functionality to phones, for games or even just funny animations, goes way beyond MMS. And because it's relatively easy to "roll your own" Flash files, and they can be exchanged via e-mail attachments, which carriers don't control, it opens the door for all sorts of compelling, free content - by the users, for the users.



So what's next? With Pocket PC, there are a few key directions the platform is moving toward. First, CDMA Phone Edition devices are on their way in the very near future. Second, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth will be fully built-in to the next version of the OS. And finally, while Pocket PC is currently geared toward business and prosumer users, future versions (2-3 years away) will also be designed to cater to consumers.

Another interesting tidbit, is that on a PowerPoint slide of operator partners for Pocket PC Phone Edition, all of the top-five U.S. carriers were listed. Interpret that however you like...

We also heard from Randy Walker, representing Verizon Wireless. He didn't have much to say in his presentation that would be news to anyone who keeps up with the headlines here on Phone Scoop, but I was able to ask him about Verizon's CDMA 2000 1xEV-DO trials in San Diego and Washington, D.C. He said that they have a van full of equipment that they drive around to test with, and so far it works great. While the theoretical peak speed is 2.4 Mbps for a whole cell, he said that the live trails show average real-world speeds for individual users to be around 300-600 kbps.

On a slightly off-topic tangent, gadget-lovers might be interested to hear about the demos of Smart Display and Tablet PC that we saw. In fact, most of us had some serious hands-on time with Tablet PC. I'll try to keep it short...

Smart Display was unimpressive. The idea is that you can simply pick up your display and take it with you around the house. (It's targeted at home users.) An example might be doing e-mail on the sofa while you watch TV. The problem is, it adds $600 - $1000 to the cost of a new PC, and you're still limited to just one person using the PC at a time. It's a neat idea, but I just can't see enough people deciding that this small convenience is worth that kind of extra money.

Tablet PC is another story. Tablet PC is extremely cool, and works pretty well. The key component is the unique stylus technology. It's not a touch-screen - it's more like a Wacom tablet. You can move the cursor by merely "hovering" the stylus over the screen, you can rest your hand on the display without affecting anything, and it's pressure-sensitive, so line thickness varies by how hard you press. It reads most handwriting fairly well, although you can't train it to learn your particular handwriting style. The showcase software for Tablet PC is Journal, which is just insanely cool. I'll leave a full explanation up to the PC sites.

But even though Tablet PC makes for the ultimate demo, I'm still not convinced it will be a commercial success. The fact is, no matter how "natural" handwriting is, typing will always be exponentially more efficient. Not all technological advancements are actually improvements over the old technology. But only time will tell...


Microsoft is the 800-pound gorilla in just about any market where they have a presence. Mobile devices are no different. They come to the table with a top brand, a huge installed user base with PCs, and a formidable army of developers. There are over 10,000 third-party applications for Pocket PC. Most of those could easily be ported to Smartphone, and many certainly will be.

It will be interesting to see how the mobile-phone market reacts to Microsoft's entrance. Pocket PC is a very powerful platform. In making Smartphone, Microsoft has "stripped out" very little, and even managed to add a few features, while putting the size and price in line with typical cell phones. This powerful formula is sure to have a major impact on the industry.

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About the author, Rich Brome:

Editor in Chief Rich became fascinated with cell phones in 1999, creating mobile web sites for phones with tiny black-and-white displays and obsessing over new phone models. Realizing a need for better info about phones, he started Phone Scoop in 2001, and has been helming the site ever since. Rich has spent two decades researching and covering every detail of the phone industry, traveling the world to tour factories, interview CEOs, and get every last spec and photo Phone Scoop readers have come to expect. As an industry veteran, Rich is a respected voice on phone technology of the past, present, and future.


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