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iBrotha anim_logo
by Rodney O. Lain

PocketPC vs. Palm, OS X vs. Windows XP,
& The Industry's Ideological Dichotomy Of Software/Hardware Development
June 8th 2000

I'll bet it hops real fast.

Comment made on local talk-radio show upon hearing news report of a frog found in Pascagoula, MS, that has 15 legs

(MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND) – The only mainstream options I had when shopping for a handheld Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) were the Handspring Visor line and the array of competing devices sold by Palm, Inc. For the wider shopping public, though, that decision includes not only the handhelds running the Palm OS but also those running Microsoft's PocketPC operating system.

The fight for market share between the two platforms is more than just one company versus another; we are witnessing a microcosmic battle between two competing, diametrically opposite ideologies. On one side, we have the Palm platform, representing simplicity -- better yet, we should say, representing minimalism: a Spartan layout of icons, spare use of color, and every element on the screen serving a purpose. You have the applications that you need, no more, no less -- the bare essentials, please. In the other corner, we have a miasma of colors, menus, and bloatware known as PocketPC. Every imaginable feature is shoehorned into what is basically the Windows 95 desktop on a smaller screen.

Each platform has its adherents, extolling their respective platforms for the reasons cited above, criticizing the other platform for the same reasons listed above.

I will be forthright and state that I am biased towards the Palm platform. I believe that Microsoft has inferior design acumen when it comes to creating a user-friendly OS (note to Microsoft: put your Mac Business Unit in charge of Windows; they obviously have a comparative clue about interface design). However, I'm open-minded enough to remain curious about the PocketPC hoopla. So, last week, I talked with a friend who owns an iPaq, and I asked him why he bought it, and asked him why I should give up my Visor.

I discovered that he is a recent convert from the Palm, which piqued my interest even more. In essence, he said he prefers Microsoft's vision for the handheld. Translated, this means that he now has, he claims, the power of a full-fledged PC in the palm of his hand, and has more applications (potentially) than the Palm platform ever will. In short, the main reason he got rid of his Palm for a PocketPC? The PocketPC has a wider assortment of features.

It was interesting that the main feature he cited was the MP3 player. It's interesting because I give less than a damn about having an MP3 player on my handheld. If that's even part of his decision process, I don't think that the Palm platform is in any jeopardy.

I honestly tried to give his iPaq a chance. I played round with it. He gave me a tour through the interface:

  1. The handwriting recognition. I gave this a whirl and couldn't get it to work. Sue me.
  2. The Start Menu. It is now in the logical place: upper left-hand corner. Hey, isn't the Apple Menu… no comment. All I'll say is that if Windows had the Start Menu is this position in the beginning, I don't see how a judge and jury would have done anything but shoot Microsoft engineers for shameless plagiarism and total lack of originality.
  3. The "pocket" versions of Word and Excel. Well, we'll never see those on the Palm OS.

I must interject another point here: I use Windows 95 and Windows NT daily. I have no problem with either. Actually, I see features that I wish the Mac OS would steal, err, emulate (for example, on the PC, you can right-click on the desktop and, through the resultant contextual menu, create a new, blank file, like, say, a text file). My point is that I don't blindly hate Windows. But, the PocketPC is pure ugliness compared to the Palm GUI. Palm's desktop metaphor is better laid out, better thought out.

I must hasten to add another point, as well. With any handheld (or any piece of hardware or software, for that matter), my Ease-of-Use Test goes thusly:

I sit down and take the product through its paces and try to do the following… 1) open basic applications like e-mail and word processing; 2) go and configure/set/reset basic settings/preferences; 3) use the handwriting system, to enter simple stuff and the complex stuff; 4) try to make the device crash, to see how it recovers and to see if anything is lost; and 5) after all of this, see if I can get back to the "home" state.

The iPaq failed all of these even though I didn't attempt 4).

Palm is in Microsoft's crosshairs
Earlier, I contrasted the Palm and the PocketPC by calling the Palm OS minimalist and calling the PocketPC bloated. This isn't opinion. This is based on facts from both corporate horses mouths.

Several months ago, Microsoft began to pursue the Palm OS in the press, at tradeshows, anywhere they were given a platform to speak. The media contained stories quoting representatives of both companies in regard to this war of the words. Palm execs said their platform (minimalism) is not only superior to Microsoft's (bloatware), but also, it's "what the people want." Microsoft countered with the opposite philosophical spin.

Both claim that they are giving the people what they want. This means that both believe that each company is making a better handheld for the masses. This translates into intuitiveness and ease of use, plain and simple.

Next time you are in a store that sells both Palm's and PocketPC machines, you should try a test: using each handheld, test run a couple of common tasks, like creating a short note, entering someone's address information, change the system-wide preferences. I bet you one American dollar that you will give up the PocketPC in frustration -- if you value good design over featuritis.

It will be interesting to see who wins this war of ideology -- yes, it is a war of ideology -- for it is the same battle epitomized by the eternal Mac-versus-Windows debate. You could easily read all of the above and replace "Palm platform" with "Mac." For the Mac platform, we, too, should be interested in knowing if the people really want minimalism or complexity, especially with the advent of OS X, a minimalist GUI if there ever was one. Microsoft seems to believe that people would prefer the software equivalent of the 15-legged frog alluded to in this column's epigraph. I'm sure the PocketPC can "run real fast" because it has all of those features/legs.

This dichotomy has been the only way I've been truly able to understand Apple's chief motive behind OS X. We could almost call OS 9 "complex" and "bloated" vis-á-vis OS X, if we just stick to the complexity of each GUI in a side-by-side comparison (not counting the Unix underpinnings).

Given a choice, I'd pass on teaching OS 9 to a class full of people, but would rather teach OS X to a class full of newbies (lovingly referred to by sales people as "scared rabbits").

The next few years will be really interesting. I'm resisting my cynicism and am hopeful that at most, the Palm OS and Mac OS X will gain and maintain substantial market share growth; at the very least, I hope that both platforms will maintain the critical-mass market share needed to continue. I don't mean subsist; I mean to thrive, regardless of what the 800-pound gorilla does over in Redmond.

Food for thought
If Microsoft management has any sense, it will not seek to "kill off" the Palm platform, á la Netscape. Similar to Microsofft's decision to invest in Apple, the company should invest in the Palm platform, or at least allow the platform to compete on a level playing field. The same way that Mac OS "inspires" Microsoft's OS efforts, I believe that the Palm platform forces the PocketPC to get better. Palm and Apple are both the proverbial "Crazy Ones," pushing OS evolution forward.

I'm sure that Microsoft wouldn't try to kill its twin seats of inspiration.

Also, it is better for the consumer if alternatives remain. The worse thing that could happen would be to wake up to a world in which there is only one type of handheld, one type of desktop OS, one type of car, one type of recording media, ad nauseum...

The day that happens is the day that we should erase from humanity's lexicon the words "technology advancement," for technology will come to a standstill with Microsoft in charge of everything, and we may as well bend over and get ready to receive our Borg implants.

Further, suggested reading:
"Cocoa Dreams" by Del Miller, Mac Del's usual excellent thought processes jive with the dichotomy I tried to espouse herein.

Your comments are welcomed.

Rodney O. Lain is a junior manager at a major corporation. He enjoys public speaking, mentoring minority college students, and helping community multicultural-awareness efforts. He also "preaches the Gospel" at a Minneapolis Micro Center -- he's the bald black guy. Rodney "drives" a G4 Cube and a PowerBook G3. After enjoying a popular run at Mac, "iBrotha" was axed, to readers' dismay. Back by popular demand, it now runs exclusively at Mac Observer every other Friday, replacing "Rodney's Soapbox."

[Editor's Note: Rodney O.Lain passed away in June, 2002.]

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