The challenge of being an IT professional is that the non-IT users around us tend to expect us to know everything. This is fine when it’s our friends or colleagues who are doing the asking, but can get awkward quickly if the person asking is our CEO or director. PDAs are an area that everyone seems to feel free to ask their IT friends about.

Maybe this primer will bring you up-to-speed on the “big picture” of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile platform, which is fast becoming one of the most popular platforms as a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant).

Pocket PC 2000/2002/2003/2003 SE

Microsoft’s foray into the field of consumer PDAs started in the form of the Pocket PC 2000. At that time, there was no standardization with a specific CPU architecture, hence Pocket PC 2000 devices comes on multiple CPU architectures such as SH-3, MIPS, and ARM. Also, the only display resolution for this release was 240 x 320.

Pocket PC 2002 kicked off the first use of this operating system on a Smartphone – or a PDA with mobile phone functionalities.

Windows Mobile 2003 is the first release of the operating system under the Windows Mobile banner.

Windows Mobile 2003 SE, on the other hand, brought additional features such as portrait and landscape display switching, additional screen resolution modes such as 640×480, 240×240, 480×480 and also WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) support to the table.

Windows Mobile 5

Released in 2005, Windows Mobile 5 comes with .NET Compact Framework 1.0 SP2, also bringing Microsoft’s PDA initiative to a new level of usability and functionality.

For Windows Mobile 5, Microsoft specified that both the storage and working RAM of all devices must now make use of non-volatile memory instead of standard volatile RAM.

There are some who argued that the comparatively slower flash memory slowed the device down, but the truth is that any slow-down is noticed by few and increasingly mitigated by the availability of faster hardware.

On the other hand, this shift has the effect of increasing battery life across the board, as well as eliminating catastrophic data loss from a drained battery, which is the bane of earlier generations of PDA devices.

Windows Mobile 5 also heralded Microsoft’s switch to an internal build mechanism called the AKU, or Adaptation Kit Upgrades. Essentially, various functionalities are rolled-out as AKU offerings. However, it’s entirely up to the hardware vendor to decide on the specific AKU offerings they want to include with their devices.

Also, a Windows Mobile 5 device that’s paired with Microsoft Exchange 2003 brings “push mail” functionality to a Microsoft product offering for the first time. However, do note that its implementation of push mail, called AUTD, is a kludge at best, and involves the use of SMS (Short Messaging Service) to trigger synchronization.

True push mail came in the form of a device with Windows Mobile 5 with MSFP (Messaging and Security Feature Pack) module and paired with Exchange 2003 SP2.

MSFP is actually specified as part of AKU2, though because of the advantageous messaging improvements, Window Mobile 5 devices with MSFP tend to advertise on the fact. I will elaborate more on MSFP in the next section.

Windows Mobile 5 with MSFP

As noted above, the MSFP (Messaging and Security Feature Pack) brings a a scalable and cost-effective mobile messaging solution to the Pocket PC in the form of push mail.

You can wirelessly synchronize your calendar, contacts, tasks and Inbox with Direct Push, Microsoft’s implementation of push mail.

Note that Microsoft Exchange 2003 SP2 is needed for the above-mentioned setup to work. Beyond that, the service pack for Microsoft Exchange 2003 is free as per Microsoft conventions.

Windows Mobile 6

In Windows Mobile 6, Microsoft revamped its branding strategy for the Windows Mobile platform. One of the reasons is that the term Smartphone used in Windows Mobile 5 and earlier to denote a phone-based Pocket PC with no touch screen has been popularized by the Palm Treo to just mean a phone-based PDA.

As such, Windows Mobile 6 now comes in three flavours:

  • Windows Mobile 6 Classic – WM device that comes with only PDA functionality
  • Windows Mobile 6 Standard – WM phone device with a non touch-screen display
  • Windows Mobile 6 Professional – WM phone device with a touch-screen display

Under the hood, Microsoft put in a large number of changes and improvements that, while not revolutionary in nature, do made the upgrade very nice to have.

Fans of push mail will find that Outlook Mobile now allows them to read HTML e-mails, with support for flags and global server search when paired with Microsoft Exchange 2007.

Windows Mobile 6 also comes with a host of enterprise-friendly features such as the ability to transparently encrypt files that are saved onto storage cards. It also improves upon its remote management capabilities. Other notable features include the bundling of the .NET Compact Framework v2 SP2 and Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Compact Edition preinstalled in ROM.

All Window Mobile devices sold in the last quarter of 2007 are essentially Window Mobile 6. Some manufacturers have also introduced a free ROM upgrade from Window Mobile 5 to Window Mobile 6 for their recently released models.

Final words

Obviously, there is also a lot about PDAs that I’m not able to cover as well as I would like. Feel free to post your comments and feedback here though. My next post will introduce some of the more popular Window Mobile software that will be useful to you, so stay tuned!