It was around mid-2002 when I got my first ever Pocket PC; the Compaq iPAQ h3970. A couple of years prior to that, I used a Casio Digital Diary for some of the same functionalities, but the Pocket PC was going to take me to the next level in serious mobile computing!
I had read about Pocket PCs and how they compared with the Palm Pilots, which was the other platform competing for handheld computing supremacy! At the time, I was convinced that the Windows Pocket PC platform is the right choice for me. And indeed, that was the beginning of an unforgettable and exciting journey of empowerment, productivity, and personal growth.
I owned a number of Pocket PC devices throughout my 8-year journey, each with their advantages and disadvantages. Specifically, I had the following devices:
– Compaq iPAQ h3970 (First love!)
– Fujitsu Siemens Pocket Loox 720 (My favorite of all! Two external card slots, USB-Host, VGA screen! I still have it!)
– Toshiba Portege g900 (Promising, but worst quality! I sold it.)
– HTC Kaiser (My Pocket PC made by HTC. I liked it, but had to sell it!)
– HTC Touch Diamond 2 (High on hype, low on delivery! I sold it)
– HTC Touch Pro 2 (T-Mobile version) (Solid and last in line! I still have it.)
# Perceptions of handheld devices:
You see, back in the day, Nokia was still king! Most people were mainly concerned about having a small (!!) phone from a popular brand. Handheld pocketable computers (or PDAs; personal digital assistants) were not very common globally, and downright rare in the Middle East at the turn of the century.
Interestingly, when Steve Jobs announced the original iPhone in 2007, I was not convinced that it was for me! Yes, it was the first true pocketable mobile computer designed for the masses, but it clearly lagged in the abilities department compared to Pocket PCs.
The point of the iPhone, though, was to make pocketable mobile computing accessible and enjoyable to the masses. The Pocket PC platform, despite the loads of power it had, was not easy to manage and utilize. So, unless you were a power user, you wouldn’t enjoy the continuous tweaking and fine-tuning of the device. Being your own device’s administrator, you had the opportunity to tailor very specific and uncommon uses for you. It was a chaotic ride sometimes, but exciting nevertheless!
# Applications/software (before they were called “Apps!”)
It was not easy to find suitable applications!
There was no unified app store! (We should all thank Apple for later inventing the idea!)
You had to go to some third party Pocket PC applications e-reseller (like handango.com), or directly to the developers’ websites (like spbsoftwarehouse.com)! And, predictably, the prices for the applications were expensive. It was not unusual to pay $20 or $30 (or more!) for a one copy of a quality application!
And then you had to keep a database of the registration keys for all your applications. Having such a list was handy for the times when your devices were damaged/lost or when you upgraded to a new one. In such cases, you would have to supply the registration key before being able to use the application! So I had – and still have! – the full list of Pocket PC applications’ purchase keys.
# Synchronizing your data:
Normally, your Pocket PC was not your only computer. You had your main desktop/laptop computer and you had to manually synchronize your data with it (Calendar, contacts, tasks, notes, documents, multimedia, etc.). And for that, manufactures used to include a physical dock for the Pocket PC to connected to the PC via a cable.
Wireless synchronization had then became available via bluetooth, but I always preferred wired synchronization for the reliability and for the added ability to charge the device.
It was such a pleasant experience to use Pocket PCs! You felt powerful and free! You did not need to be in front of your computer to do these advanced computational tasks. And, because Pocket PCs were not very common, you had felt somewhat unique, or like a member of a special club! Only one or two other people in my immediate circles were owning Pocket PCs!
You could be more organized on the go than most people. You had your calendar, contacts, to dos, lists, notes, and other tools available wherever you were. The use of the stylus (sorry, Steve Jobs!) was very precise, even pixel-precise! You could read e-books, manage finances, go online, etc.
Yes, I loved Pocket PCs..
Yes, I loved tweaking them.. And discovering features and hidden abilities..
BUT… Honestly.. (and especially compared with today’s smartphones) .. Pocket PCs were not stable!
You had to be careful not to totally drain your batteries! Because, if that happens, you could loose all your data!
And for the most part, you had to find and buy a good application to run backups (my favorite ones were Sprite Backup and SPB Backup).
For the savvy users, that meant you really had to have an SD card in your device, which stored your latest backups in case you loose your data on the go or while traveling! You were also better off having a list of actions to take in getting your device up and running after a hard reset (completely wiping data).
# Specific uses/applications:
So, how useful and utilitarian was the Pocket PC?
Well, the device could do almost anything you want it to. You just needed to spend the time digging through the settings, searching the web for suitable apps, and going through dedicated forums (like xdadevelopers.com and ce4arab.com).
In terms of my specific uses, they could be broken down into the following areas:
– General productivity
I loved how I always had my calendar events and my To Do list (following the Getting-Things-Done (GTD) system, by David Allen) with me everywhere I go. I had started with using the built in calendar, that was synchronized to my PC. I then switched to using the excellent (and one of my all time favorite Pocket PC app) Pocket Informant (you can get it on iOS now). It was mainly used, though, for managing my GTD system; Projects, next actions, inbox, etc. I had still been in my life phase of completing higher education degrees, so Pocket Informant helped me get things under control.
The Pocket PC was also very good in managing emails (the built in application, and Flexmail), and in working with documents (MS Word Mobile, TextMaker, and Repligo). For organizing notes (pre-Evernote!), I used the excellent PhatNotes app, as well as the built in Notes app for typed as well as hand written notes.
One of my highlights in this area was the ability to remote control PowerPoint slides on my laptop wirelessly through my Pocket PC screen (using Periscope). I remember that this had created true amazement among my students!
– Personal tools
This was a highly empowering area! With my personal finances, I used SPB Finance, which was an amazing and very well developed application. Besides the overall expected functions that you would see today (managing accounts, budgeting, etc.), SPB Finance was especially powerful in quick data entry (I’m yet to find an equally powerful tool today!). Basically, you could assign a physical keyboard button (missing from today’s devices!) for the quick entry screen. So, you leave Wal-Mart, and immediately press that physical button. Once you start typing W-A-L.. in the payee box, the app autofills the rest based on your transaction history! And you just need to adjust the bill amount. This is something that today’s all-glass slab devices cannot match!
And speaking of the groceries example, the Pocket PC enabled a beautifully powerful tool to efficiently complete your groceries list. You see, when you are buying groceries, at least one of your hands is tied to the trolly. So on your other (usually left) hand, you could hold the Pocket PC facing you, while having your thumb on the side scroller. On the device, you would have ListPro running (an amazingly powerful list maker, now available on iOS – without the physical button help though!). You would have the Wal-Mart grocery list organized by sections of the store, and ordered according to your usual path (like, vegetables, then breads/bakery, then frozen items, etc). So you simply follow your usual path, and check off items (by clicking the side scroller) as you place them on the trolly! I can’t properly explain how powerful and efficient this is, and how sorely lacking this ability is from modern devices.
The ListPro app was also very useful for travel checklists (one handed!), the list of my device applications’ registration keys, etc.
And for more sensitive data, like passwords, you had the excellent SPB Wallet app.
GPS was a technical feature gradually coming into Pocket PCs. But even without it built in, I had bought an external GPS receiver that I could use with my device. My first GPS application was Pharos, followed by the excellent CoPilot (available on iOS now).
And for managing your travel details, SPB Traveler was a handy app to have.
In the early days, Pocket PCs were not properly set for Arabic language use. For that, you needed to buy and install the (expensive!) Arabizer software, which did a decent job.
I also had Pocket Quran, for reading the Quran and searching through it. I remember being the first in any of my circles to read Quran in the mosque from a digital device. Friends used to ask about that, and some of them ended up buying Pocket PCs! Nowadays, of course, it is much more common with iOS and Android.
Aside from email, Pocket PCs could link to the Internet, but without software that are as optimized as today’s Safari or Chrome. You had Pocket Internet Explorer pre-installed, but for more serious browsing, one needed apps like NetFront and Opera Mini. For RSS readers, I had the exccellent Engress app which made it easy to follow my most important news and updates.
In short, the Pocket PC was tremendously empowering. You might look at the list above and say that (almost!) all of that is easily doable today. That is true, but at the time it was uncommon and some features today are still not implemented to the same level as they were implemented on the Pocket PC platform.
It’s been a wonderful phase of my life, those 8 years with Pocket PCs. I had then switched to Android (2010) for about 2.5 years, then to Windows Phone (2013) for about a year, to BlackBerry 10 (2014) for about 2.5 years, and now the iPhone (+ iPad) since November 2016.
Having had the experience of using all major mobile platforms, I could say that overall (and adjusting for technology advancements), the Pocket PC was the most uniquely empowering and the most customizable. It made having a mobile computer exciting and freeing, especially in terms of productivity. I am greatly thankful for the empowerment, efficiency, and joy that the Pocket PC platform has offered me for almost a decade.
The good old days… !