For years, the mega-giant Microsoft, so big and powerful on the desktop that the government wants to chop it up, has been blown away in the battle of the pocket-sized computer.
Since the mid-1990s, when a gadget called the Palm Pilot caught the imaginations of high-tech workers who wanted to track appointments, addresses and expenses, Palm devices have captured 80 percent of the market for personal digital assistants.
But Microsoft is assaulting the ramparts of 3Com's Palm empire once again with a new release of its Windows CE operating system and a new generation of PDAs from Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and Casio. Calling the devices Pocket PCs, they're betting that consumers want more than just an organizer.
Judging by the new HP Jornada 545, they'll get a lot more. In addition to handling the usual chores, the Jornada can play music files downloaded from the Internet, record voices, open an Excel spreadsheet, organize the owner's finances and display an electronic book in type that's actually readable on the PDA's tiny screen.
Dataquest analyst Mike McGuire says it's the manufacturers' approach that makes the difference between the Pocket PC crowd and the Palm. Microsoft and its partners have taken as much technology as they can pack into a tiny gadget and then decided what could be done with it. Palm developers, McGuire says, have taken a leaner approach, figuring out what business users want and creating a device to do the job.
With a narrower focus, Palm PDAs and the workalike Handspring Visor (which uses the Palm operating system) are simpler and more direct in their efforts to pull e-mail from your computer and keep your contact list.
"I just bought a Palm VII wireless. The whole thing was up and running in about 10 minutes," said Sean Carton, part owner of Streettech.com, a Web site that reviews consumer electronics. "It was like 'plug and play.'"
But with each release of Windows CE, Microsoft has been simplifying its operating system and programming, says Martin Reynolds, a Dataquest vice president.
That shows in the new Jornada, which at $500 is about $50 more than the comparable color Palm IIIc. The Jornada weighs about 9 ounces and is small enough to fit into a shirt or suit pocket. Like the Palm, it's controlled by pressing a touch-sensitive screen with a plastic stylus and by punching four buttons on the top.
It was easy to set up the calendar and address book, thanks to a simplified interface that abandons much of the Windows look and feel from previous CE releases in favor of a button-based control panel similar to the Palm's. Navigation on the screen was easier than in earlier Windows devices, too.
Synchronizing information with a desktop computer is no longer a drawn-out process -- a major failing of earlier CE devices. The instructions were clear and simple and the Microsoft ActiveSynch software -- which uses a USB connection -- made it easy to upload and download.
However, writing with the Jornada's character recognition program can be tough and unpleasant for novices. Hunting and pecking with an on-screen keyboard may make more sense.
Unlike the Palm, the Jornada allows you to read a Word document or an Excel spreadsheet attached to an e-mail message. It's also loaded with the kinds of things gadget freaks find irresistible, and which may use up all of its 16 megabytes of memory. For example, the Jornada and other CE devices can play MP3 music files and other multimedia content through a pint-sized version of Windows Media Player.
Windows CE can also display electronic books and other documents using Microsoft Reader, a new technology that renders text on the screen crisply and clearly even in sizes smaller than you're reading in this newspaper. Whether that's good enough to entice readers of full-length books remains to be seen.
The program ships with Microsoft Money and a pocket version of Internet Explorer that displays Web pages in a condensed but surprisingly readable format. The browser also will run the Java scripts that many sites use for animation and interactive content.
Getting to the Web in the first place is a different story. While the Palm VII offers users a direct wireless connection to the Internet, the Jornada relies on a more complex link through cellular telephones.
Rideh Patel, a senior analyst for the Aberdeen Group, a technology research and consulting firm, says the latest release of Windows CE shows that no one should count Microsoft out of the pocket market yet.
Others believe that 3Com may need to expand its underlying technology for the next generation of PDAs.
"Here's where they [Palm devices] fall short," says Brian Cuthie, a consultant for Systemix Software who has used several Palm and Windows CE devices. The operating system "is very limited. It has 2 megabytes of memory and you can't run a real browser on 2 megabytes of memory. They have to change their view if they're going to play in the same universe as Microsoft."
Some analysts, such as Tom Rhinelander of Forrester Research, think the current battle may be irrelevant since PDAs are about to take off in a new direction, as wireless communication becomes widely available.
"PDAs have peaked in interest," he says. Their manufacturers "will retrench and regroup, with the organizing piece of it cannibalized by cellular telephones."
Among the first of those devices is the pdQ Smartphone from Kyocera Wireless, which has a flip-down keypad that reveals a Palm-based organizer. But most reviewers, including PC Magazine, say the gadget is too bulky and heavy for everyday use.
On a slightly different evolutionary track is Research In Motion's RIM 957, a wireless hand-held device that's focused on e-mail but includes an organizer.
The prospect of wireless revolution is not lost on 3Com, Microsoft or any of the other PDA manufactures. This month, for example, 3Com officials said that every new Palm will have wireless Internet capacity and add-ons will be created to retrofit older Palm organizers.
"People's expectations are going to change dramatically," says Systemix's Cuthie. Once wireless networks are common, "you can go to the grocery store and price-compare through the Internet.
"Now that everything in the world is on the Web, the minute you get something that can see a real Web page, you have something really powerful in your hands."