Operating System
Most PDAs are based on one of the two leading operating systems for handheld devices. The market is split fairly evenly between Microsoft’s Windows Mobile and PalmSource’s Palm OS. Windows Mobile, also referred to as Pocket PC, is the latest incarnation of what was originally called Windows CE, the MS operating system for handheld devices which came into being in 1996. The operating system comes in three flavours, one for conventional PDAs and two versions for different classes of smart-phones. The current version of Microsoft’s system is Windows Mobile Pocket PC 2003.

The history of Palm OS dates back to 1996 when Palm released its first PDA, the Palm Pilot 1000. The device and its subsequent replacements enjoyed massive popularity and Palm eventually decided to sell the operating system as a product in its own right to other PDA manufacturers. In 2003 the company was split into two separate ventures: PalmOne, which manufacturers PDAs and smart-phones, and PalmSource which produces the Palm OS operating system. The latest version of the software is the recently released Palm OS 6 ‘Cobalt’ – a much anticipated total re-design of the operating system which puts it on a fairly level footing with Windows Mobile.

Traditionally Palm OS has had the lion’s share of the PDA market, but Gartner reports that in the first quarter of 2004 Windows Mobile was able to make significant gains, giving each operating system roughly 40% of all PDAs shipped in that period. It’s likely that Palm OS lost ground due to customers delaying their purchases until the latest version of the software was released. After PalmOne, Sony was PalmSource’s biggest licencee and now that the company has stopped selling PDAs outside of Japan it remains to be seen if PalmSource will be able to claw back it’s number one position or whether Microsoft will ultimately claim dominance in yet another sector.

The encroachment of smart-phones into the low end of the PDA market is also likely to hurt Palm’s market share. Todd Kort at Gartner said “This will primarily impact the Palm OS because a relatively high percentage of Palm OS users rely on these devices solely for their PIM capabilities.” However, Microsoft is in no position to start acting complacently. “Smart-phones will become more important in the enterprise market in 2005, at which point we expect to see increasing erosion of the Microsoft side of the market.”

The remaining 20% of the PDA operating system market is shared between Linux (found in devices such as Sharp’s Zaurus), RiM’s Blackberry machines which use the company’s own Java based system (see boxout), and a mixed bag of proprietary systems. Smaller smart-phone devices that are more similar to mobile phones than PDAs werenot included in these figures, such devices are often based on an operating system called Symbian.

In terms of features and performance there is very little to separate the two leading operating systems and buying decisions are more likely to be based on hardware considerations. There are, however, some practicalities which may influence buyers. At the low end of the market Palm based devices are considerably cheaper with an entry level Palm One Zire costing just £59. Hewlett-Packard, the largest supplier of Windows based PDAs, offers an entry level iPaq 1930 at £186 – albeit at a far higher specification than the Zire. Nobody makes really low end Windows based PDAs.
Usability is something of a thorny issue as it relates to handheld operating systems. Neither system is anything like as complex as a desktop computer to operate and manage, and it’s difficult to imagine any reasonably competent user running into difficulties. However, many devotees will testify that Palm OS is the easier of the two for non-technical people to get to grips with, so if absolute simplicity is high on your list of priorities then you should consider Palm OS over Pocket PC.

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