Thursday, March 29, 2007

On the dull blade of mobile technology

Yesterday Minimo 0.2 was released, and today Microsoft announced a limited beta for its new Deepfish web browser. Each represents a major advance over Pocket Internet Explorer. Minimo supports tabbed browsing, something that the commercial Opera Mobile browser already supports.

Deepfish has a nifty new interface that lets you view an entire web page and then zoom into an area of the screen for a closer look. On a small screen, that zoom feature is what actually makes text readable. It's kind of funny that this too is a feature included in a version of the Opera browser, although this time I'm talking about Opera for Wii, not Opera Mobile.

Jason Langridge
posted a video of Deepfish in action:

But here's the thing. Both Minimo and Deepfish will only run on Windows Mobile 5.0 or newer devices.

Now, I understand that it would probably take plenty of work to make these programs backward compatible. But there are plenty of users out there who are running Windows Mobile 2003 or earlier. Why? Largely because Windows Mobile 5.0 wasn't the revolutionary upgrade we were promised.

The big selling point for WM5 was that it included persistent storage. That means if your battery runs out completely you won't lose any data. On older Pocket PCs your operating system is running in RAM, which requires power. That means your device hard resets every time it runs completely out of juice. Before it gets to this point, your PDA will warn you that the battery is low and shut itself off. You've got 72 hours or so to charge it before it's completely dead.

WM5 was suppose to solve this problem by storying everything in flash memory that doesn't require power. Files are loaded into RAM as they're needed. This was supposed to effectively increase the battery life of devices by about 20%. But it's not at all clear that it has. And more importantly, devices running Windows Mobile 5.0 seem to run much slower than earlier PDAs.

I've got a Dell Axim X50v. I picked it up a few years ago because it had a fast processor, a VGA screen, and a WM5 upgrade disc. Before it arrived I started reading reports from all the people who'd had poor experiences with the upgrade. Since the X50v was designed for WM2003SE and not WM5, it didn't run as well as the X51v, which was designed for WM5.

So I stuck with WM2003SE until a few months ago when Dell released an update that everyone claimed made running WM5 almost bearable. I installed it, played around for a few days and decided that my PDA was far slower than it used to be. It took much longer for programs to open after pressing a button or tapping the screen. And performing a soft reset took forever. So I went back to WM2003SE.

But technology marches on. And most of the innovations in mobile computing have involved combining the features of PDAs and cellphones. And that's just not something that interests me right now. My Dell Axim is still one of the only affordable PDAs on the market with a VGA screen and a 624MHz processor. I'm not ready to replace it.

And while I've been through my fair share of PDAs (11 in 6 years), I don't like being forced to upgrade just to run the latest software. If you have an older device, you can't even access most modern web sites with the built in web browser.

A few years ago I decided the solution to this problem was Linux. That way I could run Dillo, Firefox, or other mobile browsers.

I picked up a Jornada 680e and then a Jornada 720 in the hopes of installing Linux on them. My hope was that by using Linux I could make these old devices useful. But there were a few problems. First off, there's only so much you can do with a 133MHz or 206MHz mobile processor. I got the machines to run Opie, but they were slow.

And more importantly, there was no real good way to turn the machines on and off. I'd essentially made them into little computers that took a long time to boot up and to shut down. So much for the instant on/off functionality I'd grown to love about mobile computing. I sold both units on eBay.

There are a few people hard at work trying to port Linux to the Axim X50v, so maybe in a year or two I'll try again with this PDA. But odds are it won't make the machine run any faster than it does right now. Windows Mobile 2003SE works great. It's just that many new programs won't run on it. So I'll probably just wind up paying the $30 for Opera Mobile. It's worth paying to support a company that understands that not all of their customers have gone out and bought the latest and "greatest."

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