Handheld Operating Systems

Although the choice of PDA device is increasing all the time, the struggle for dominance in the operating system space continues to be a battle between just three protagonists:

  • Windows CE
  • EPOC, and
  • PalmOS.

It was not only hardware companies that were prompted to enter the PDA market by Psion’s decade of success. Microsoft – sensing an opportunity that was too good to miss – also entered the fray with Windows CE, its first purpose-built embedded operating system. At the time of its launch in the autumn of 1996, 40-odd companies signaled their support with the promise of developing CE-compatible hardware or software.

The original CE 1.0 supported monochrome devices. Support for color displays was introduced with the CE 2.0 version and was, for a while, an important factor in Microsoft’s favor in the battle for market share. Support for RISC-based processors was added in version 2.1. However, the first CE devices were not well received, primarily because of limitations of the operating system and battery-hungry hardware. Despite improvements, and in the face of growing support for the rival PalmOS, by the end of the millennium CE continued to struggle to establish any kind of momentum.

Many felt that the fundamental problem lay in Microsoft’s decision to mimic the look and feel of the traditional Windows GUI on a much smaller form factor. Its detractors argued that the consequence was an OS that was simply too complex for PDA class devices, even allowing for the fact that CE’s scalable architecture allowed companies to use the modules they needed – including the GUI, which could be separated from the core CE kernel – rather than taking the entire system, .

Microsoft initially sought to address the problem by evolving CE into two variants – the Handheld PC Pro (H/PC Pro) being designed for keyboard-based PDAs and the Palm PC (P/PC) version for palm devices. Whilst this improved things, a more radical strategy – and one that was to succeed in significantly reversing its fortunes – was soon to follow.

In the spring of 2000 Microsoft launched the Pocket PC platform – effectively a superset layer of applications and software components built on top of a Windows CE foundation. This represented a major departure from the then current Windows CE 2.11 devices, abandoning the concept of putting a desktop based version of Windows on a mobile device and instead addressing the functionality issues involved in making a mobile device truly useful. The new approach resulted in a simplified user interface and much more enjoyable mobile experience overall.

The strategy was further refined in the autumn of 2001 with the announcement of Pocket PC 2002. Like its predecessor this was aimed at the higher end of the handheld computing market, offering far more computing power than the lower-end devices popularized by Palm. For example, using Intel’s SA-1110 processor Compaq’s highly successful iPaq handheld was capable of operating at clock speeds of up to 206MHz, compared with the 33MHz achieved by a typical low-end Palm system employing a Motorola Dragonball processor.

Moreover, Pocket PC 2002 represented a subtle shift in direction from the original version of the platform, having an increased focus on the enterprise-level market sector, notably by the integration of a number of mobile-orientated features. The latest version introduces support for Bluetooth, IEEE 802.11b and mobile phone technologies such as CDPD, CDMA and GSM, and allows access to corporate information via a number of connectivity options ranging from VPN, WAN, LAN or PANs. Of more general interest is support for the current version of Microsoft’s multimedia software – Windows Media Player 8 – thereby allowing digital music and movie clips to be played on pocket-sized devices.

EPOC takes its name from the core of Psion’s Series 3 OS. It was called EPOC to mark Psion’s belief the new epoch for personal convenience had begun. For the Series 5, EPOC had become the name of the OS itself and had evolved into a 32-bit open system. Originally this ran only on RISC-based processors using an ARM architecture. Subsequently, EPOC32 became portable to any hardware architecture.

Psion did not begin to license its EPOC32 operating system until 1997. Support was disappointing though, with Philips being the only major manufacturer to show any interest. However, in mid-1998 Psion joined forces with Ericsson, Nokia and Motorola to form a new joint venture called Symbian, with the aim of establishing EPOC as the de facto operating system for mobile Wireless Information Devices and seeking to drive the convergence of mobile computing and wireless technology, enabling Internet access, messaging, information access, all within a device which fits in a shirt pocket. The three handset manufacturers would share their development resources with Psion, which will continue to develop the EPOC32 operating system in conjunction with its new partners.

Symbian believes more than 600 million people will have mobile communication/information devices by 2002. These will either be smartphones, combining communication and PIM functionality, or more fully-featured wireless information devices that will combine today’s notebook, mobile phone and PDA in a single unit. According to Symbian, EPOC32 has a number of characteristics – modularity, scaleability, low power consumption, compatibility with RISC chips like the StrongARM – that make it ideal for these devices.

Symbian plans to evolve the its EPOC technology into two reference designs. One will be a continuation of the current form factor, supporting fully featured PDAs and digital handsets. The other will be an entirely new design providing support for a tablet-like form factor with stylus operation, handwriting recognition and powerful integrated wireless communications – in other words a device that sounds remarkably like the Palm VII!

In late 1999 EPOC’s move to color support was signaled by the launch of two sub-notebook models, the Series 7 and netBook.

The phenomenal success of the Pilot and Palm Pilot devices in the late 1990s has given Palm OS a major advantage in the battle of the competing operating systems – market share. By the end of 1999 Palm Computing had claimed a staggering 70% of the worldwide PDA market and established a user base of more than 5 million. As a direct consequence there were a claimed 20,000-plus developers creating and adapting software for the Palm OS platform at the start of the new millennium.

The number of companies licensing Palm OS is also increasing all the time, and includes IBM, Nokia, Sony and rival PDA manufacturer, Handspring Inc. The release of the latter’s Visor product in the autumn of 1999 is particularly significant, validating as it does Palm OS as a platform others can build on.

The operating system is the most important feature of any mobile device and as well as its excellent purpose-developed GUI Palm OS’s power-conscious coding has resulted in battery lives which are measured in weeks as compared to its rivals, which continue to be measured in hours. Palm was slower to add colour to its range than its competitors, being reluctant to lose its advantages in terms of battery life, size, and weight. The Palm IIIc, introduced in the spring of 2000, succeeded on this score, weighing in at only 20g more than its monochrome sibling and coming equipped with rechargeable Li-ion batteries – with a claimed life of two weeks – to power its Sharp-made TFT screen.

In a move that signaled the importance Palm attaches to the corporate market, an alliance was announced in mid-1999 that will enable system administrators to remotely manage Palm devices using Computer Associates TNG Management Support software. In addition, the companies are collaborating to expand the management functionality of the Palm Computing platform by delivering a comprehensive suite of CA integrated solutions for asset and inventory management, help desk and remote control.

It’s difficult to forecast who’ll be the ultimate winner in the battle of the PDA operating systems, and claims concerning market share vary enormously. However, it appears beyond dispute that the advent of the Pocket PC platform in 2000 has transformed the fortunes of Microsoft’s Windows CE and enabled it to make serious inroads into the significant lead PalmOS had enjoyed up until then.