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Windows CE and the Great Big Mobile World Out There!

  • By Nancy Nicolaisen
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Let's be candid with one another. If you are reading this, you are either a Windows CE developer or have thoughts of becoming one. And as we know only too well, it's a great, big diverse mobile world out there, but not a world Windows CE is taking by storm. In fact, today's Palm OS devices enjoy a 70% market share, so in pragmatic sense, there are really only two kinds of PDAs: Palms and the rest. Exactly where does that leave Windows CE developers in the Microsoft A.B. ( After Ballmer ) world?

The Backstory

To the unobservant, its seems mystifying that the company that created a revolution with a wonderful technology like Windows failed to even show up for the next two revolutions: the Internet and wireless. To long time Microsoft watchers, this is less surprising. Microsoft's success has never been a product of innovation, but rather a result of waiting and watching emerging markets. Time and again, Microsoft has jumped into the marketplace after a technology has proven itself viable. Bringing to bear aggressive marketing and formidable engineering capabilities, they validate what has already proven successful, and in the process reap tremendous profits. This strategy worked brilliantly until fairly recently.

Both the Internet and momentum toward mobile computing escaped Microsoft's emerging trends radar for a couple of reasons. First, today's Microsoft is a huge corporation, and like the Queen Mary, it just doesn't turn on a dime. Legal battles, a large, well established enterprise business and managing internal growth absorbed the full attention of top management in the late 90's. Second, in certain sectors, adoption of both the wired Internet and wireless technology was very rapid. In Asia today, consumers purchase wireless Internet enabled cell phones at a rate of 9 to 1. In Europe, the figure is 5 to 1. By the time it was clear that these technologies were going to be successful, there were already serious competitors in place.

So even though something "Windows CE-like" was publicly discussed as long ago as the late 80's, the PocketPC was the first CE product that has had any real hope of consumer success—And it must face down an entrenched population of Palm OS devices. Clearly, Microsoft didn't do itself or CE developers any favors by squandering its early opportunity to dominate the mobile computing niche.

It's All About Communication

Microsoft Mobile Systems group failed to recognize the opportunities of Windows CE in the wireless computing world because they saw mobile computing as a consumer technology. They were wrong, twice. Mobile computing is about communication, not technology; and for the foreseeable future, enterprise will drive technical development and wireless infrastructure build-out. Here's why:

The mobile workforce — people who spend most of their time away from a traditional office setting — are the hands and feet of enterprise. They interact directly with clients and customers, and are the ones who make business happen, deal-by-deal, day-by-day. At the same time, they are the most remote from information resources. The key to improving their effectiveness and productivity is making the mobile device a enabling and empowering communication tool.

Fundamentally, there are three patterns of communications the wireless mobile device can automate:

  1. Business to Employee: Think of a hospital worker checking patient records, while providing care. B2E mobile applications require custom wireless client interfaces, and also must operate online or offline. This is a good match with the strengths of PocketPC devices.

  2. Business to Consumer: Think of consumer purchases and reservations. B2C applications are ideal candidates for phone applications accessed by voice based interfaces

  3. Business to Business: Think supply chain management. B2B applications can be lightweight phone based systems or more full featured HPC implementation.

Here's the take home lesson: When you approach mobile application development, start with a communication model, then implement the smallest footprint solution that will accomplish the job.

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This article was originally published on January 30, 2003

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