Well, try this on for size:cell phone-organizer runs on software from Microsoft. Yes, that Microsoft, whose palmtop software was mocked by Palm employees for years as bloated and inefficient.
What's next--a new radio show with Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken as co-hosts?
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The first question, in Palm's case, is: why? The answer is: corporate sales.
For years, Palm has stood by, gnashing its teeth and, as corporate tech buyers lived and breathed the credo, "Nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft." So maybe, thought Palm, it could join that party by offering its much-admired Treo phone with Microsoft inside.
The second question is: how?
From the beginning,were miles apart. Microsoft lived for long lists of features and 65 different ways to get at them, while Palm strove for simplicity and directness. (At one point, Palm actually employed a tap counter--a guy whose job it was to make sure no task required more than three taps on the PalmPilot's touch screen.) How on earth can these two approaches be reconciled?
A look at the new Treo
Palm's Treo 700w comes with Windows OS
As it turns out, not very easily. The Treo 700w ($400 with a two-year Verizon commitment) is a Frankensteinian mishmash. Some of its features are so inspired and well executed, you can't help grinning, while others are so clumsy, you smack your forehead.
In the first category, you'll find a cluttered but fantastically useful new Today screen, your starting point and home base. It offers speed-dial buttons for your most frequently called contacts, displayed either as names or, cleverly, as photos.
The Today screen's Search box summons names from your address book as you type on the excellent micro-keyboard. In fine Treo tradition, you can generally pluck one name out of a thousand in your address book just by typing the person's initials. One more button press places the call or sends a message. You can also set up the Treo's alphabet keys as speed-dial buttons--B for Big Boss, for example.
The Today screen also lists your appointments and the number of unread e-mail messages. All of this information is synched effortlessly from Outlook on your Windows PC, either via a USB cable or (if your corporation uses Microsoft Exchange Server) wirelessly, over the air. Added-cost Macintosh compatibility is in the works from MarkSpace.
Finally, the Today screen includes a Google search box that takes you directly to the Web. (Google? Does Microsoft know about this?)
Those are only some of the ways in which Palm has improved on the standard Windows Mobile operating system. You can tap VCR-like buttons (Play, Skip, Delete and so on) when checking your voice mail so you don't have to memorize keystrokes.
Conference calling is practically effortless on the Treo, compared with the standard Windows Mobile method (which involves shuttling between the Contacts and Phone programs). Palm has gone well beyond Microsoft's limited use of sound cues, too. For example, you can use MIDI files, MP3 files or even video clips as ringers for individual callers, as alert sounds or even as alarms to wake you in the morning.
All of this comes in the sleekest Treo yet, a gleaming slab whose glowing, domed keys and buttons are a delight to the fingertips. (Palm says that it has ironed out the hardware glitches that drew complaints on earlier models.) The usual Treo hardware goodies are here: a switch that instantly silences all sounds, a camera (with improved resolution--1.3 megapixels), speakerphone, a beefy battery (4.5 hours of talk time), a slot for an SD memory card (to hold music, photos and videos), and a five-way rocker switch that lets you operate most functions with one hand and no stylus.
The Treo has always been a great little Internet machine, but the 700w takes a leap forward in speed. Because it can use Verizon Wireless's high-speed Internet network--called EV-DO by geeks and Broadband Access by Verizon--the 700w gets you online at nearly the speed of a cable modem, at least in major cities. (Verizon Wireless offers bundles like $80 a month for 450 minutes of calls, or $110 for 1,350 minutes, with unlimited EV-DO Internet use.)
Alas, even after all that plastic surgery, you can't escape the fact that you're basically running Windows.
For instance, you open programs from a tiny Start menu, which you activate by pressing a dedicated Windows-logo key. Fine, except that the Start menu has room to list only seven programs. For access to anything else, you must open the Programs folder. But even here, only nine icons fit on each screen, and no list view is available. So you have to do a lot of scrolling.
Like it or not, Windows Mobile also teaches you about memory management. Every time you open a program, it stays open in the background, even if you close its window. Sooner or later, you'll run into the "Program Memory Low" error message, requiring you to shut down programs manually in a special list box.
The 700w's beefed-up memory (60MB free) makes this situation less frequent. Still, the whole ritual should be unnecessary. Doesn't anyone at Microsoft realize how silly it sounds to say, "Just a minute--I have to quit some programs on my phone"?
That's not the only hit to efficiency. Microsoft must believe that all its customers bill by the hour. Just rotating a photo requires four steps. The Treo 700w no longer has buttons for Calendar and Address Book, either; those functions are now buried in menus that require more steps to reach. Buttons for Mute and Speakerphone used to appear right on the Treo screen during calls. These, too, are now in menus. What once required one step now requires two--if you even know where to look for them.
Here's another example: On older Treos, you could write a new appointment directly onto, say, the 3:30 p.m. line of the calendar's Day view. Microsoft's version offers no such instant gratification. Instead, creating a new appointment requires choosing starting and ending times from pop-up menus inside a dialogue box. Only half-hour increments are available; let's hope you never have a 4:45 train to catch.
Palm didn't help matters by adding a prominent OK key, which actually means just the opposite. That is, instead of Yes, Go or Forward, it means Cancel, Back or Stop. You use it, for example, to cancel out of a dialogue box or window, to backtrack to a previous screen, or to close a menu without making a choice. It must have been designed by the same person who, in the full-blown Windows, put the Shut Down command in the Start menu.
Speaking of steps backward, Treonauts should note that the 700w's screen resolution is only 240 by 240 pixels, far coarser than the previous model's. (Palm maintains that this restriction is imposed by Microsoft's software.)
Verizon Wireless is the first carrier of this Treo--a surprising development since it was the last major cellular company to offer the previous Treo model.
Yet Verizon Wireless is partly responsible for the 700w's crippled Bluetooth (short-range wireless) features. For example, Verizon has turned off the feature that lets your laptop get online using the Treo as a wireless antenna. You can use a wireless headset, but the phone works only with some Bluetooth-equipped cars; the Toyota Prius, for example, isn't on the list. (If history is any guide, these features will be available from other carriers when they get the Treo 700w later this year.)
There are certainly bright spots in the 700w. It's brisk and responsive, it feels great in your hand and it does a lot of stuff. (In fact, the only modern cell phone feature missing is Wi-Fi wireless networking, which you can add with Palm's $100 SD Wi-Fi card.)
But considering that Palm's designers once worshipped at the altar of interface excellence, it's a shame that Microsoft's convoluted software has produced such an awkward marriage with the hardware. Longtime Treo fans, in particular, will be absolutely baffled by the new software layout.
Then again, the 700w wasn't built for longtime Treo fans (who, in any case, can still buy the older 650 model). It was built for corporate buyers, whose top priorities may not include providing the most pleasurable experience possible for the worker bees.
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