Standing on the Shoulders of Mobile Giants, Part 0: Introduction

Today, the technology world is gripped by what can only be described as a dirty war between iOS on one side, and Android on the other. While the parties in this war fight it out in the US court system, the web has latched onto this conflict like a starved leach to a nice juicy ankle, and this focus on just iOS and Android has had a rather unpleasant side effect. This effect was subtle at first, but now, it’s everywhere. Yes, if you were to believe the web, iOS and/or Android invented everything when it comes to mobile operating systems. I will have none of that, and my PDA collection begs to differ too.

This is only the very first article in a series of articles about the PDA – focussing on both PalmOS and Windows Mobile, the two most successful PDA operating systems. My thesis is that iOS, Android, and other smartphone operating systems today are standing on the shoulders of these two giants – two giants which today have almost been entirely forgotten. I refuse to accept that.

PalmOS – probably loved more now than back when it was current. Limited, crash-prone, and unstable, but at the same time endearing, cute; kind of like a little puppy that isn’t housetrained yet. Windows Mobile – probably gets a lot more hate than it deserves. Inconsistent, confusing, and badly in need of a built-in task manager, but at the same time, extremely versatile, powerful; kind of like a toddler on coffee with too many toys, surrounded by sharp table corners.

One PDA staple you’re missing here is the Apple Newton. The reasons for this are simple. First, I don’t own a Newton and have no idea how to buy one without handing over a kidney. Second, unlike PalmOS and Windows Mobile, the Newton didn’t actually sell very well. Third, unlike some people want you to believe, the Newton was not the first PDA, not the first pen input device, and not the first device with handwriting recognition. In other words, it’s not special because it was a ‘first’. However, If I do manage to get my hands on a Newton, it will most definitely be included in this series – that thing fascinates me to no end.

So, why am I announcing this series? Simple – I want to know about your experiences with these platforms. The applications you used, the hacks you performed, interesting anecdotes, memories of coding for these platforms, and so on. Maybe you worked at Palm or Microsoft on these platforms, maybe you know people who did, you name it. What are applications I absolutely must try? What hacks must I perform? Any advice? Tips?

The timeframe for this series is a little odd, since I’m currently in the home stretch of my master’s thesis, meaning my time over the coming weeks is limited. This means the first article in this series probably won’t hit until September.

My collection

Now, just to get my geek on, I’ll detail my collection, from left to right, top to bottom.

Palm T|X

This is one of the three devices I added to my collection over the past few weeks, solely for the purposes of this little endeavour. I specifically wanted this model because the T|X is PalmOS’s Swan Song. It’s Palm’s last actual PDA, since the company focussed on its Treo smartphones after the T|X.

This thing is fully operational.

  • Palm OS Garnet, 5.4.9
  • 312 MHz Intel XScale PXA 270
  • 32MB RAM
  • 128MB Flash memory, 100MB user-accessible
  • 3.9″ 480×320, 16 bit
  • WiFi (802.11b)
  • Bluetooth/IrDA
  • SD card slot
  • Launch date: November 2005

HP iPaq Pocket PC h2215

This is my most beloved model – and when you see it in real-life, you’ll understand why: this thing has been worn and torn to the bone. I have used this device quite a lot, for just about anything you can imagine. The thing looks hideous, and build quality wasn’t particularly good, but the amount of sheer processing power it delivered… Amazing. I was streaming Futurama episodes from my server to this thing over SAMBA, while copying some more episodes to an SD card in the background.

This one isn’t fully functional anymore, as the battery lid used to have a tiny pin pressing down on a button that told the device the lid was closed. Without it, it won’t boot. Of course, this is easy enough to fix. I am very interested in seeing what is still on this one.

  • Windows Mobile 2003 (I believe I updated it to Windows Mobile 5)
  • 400 MHz Intel XScale
  • 32MB ROM for the operating system
  • 64MB memoy, 56MB user-accessible
  • 3.5″ 320×240, 16 bit
  • Bluetooth
  • CF/SD card slot

Sharp Zaurus SL-5500

The Zaurus has a special place in my heart. It’s a true geek’s machine, runs an embedded Linux operating system, and looks positively gorgeous. I’m kidding, the thing is hideous, but in an awesome, geeky everything-and-the-kitchen-sink kind of way. It has a keyboard hidden behind a slider, has full command line access, has a development environment based on Qt and Java (huh.), and the Zaurus PDAs being fully open source, it was extended like crazy – including the ability to pull .deb packages from the web with its package manager, using a CF wireless card (huh.). The Zaurus line of PDAs was far ahead of its time – and an omen for the Linux-dominated smartphone world we live in today.

It’s fully functional.

  • Embedix embedded Linux 2.4.x with Qt, Java, and Qtopia (currently runs OpenZaurus with OPIE)
  • 206MHz Intel SA-1110 StrongARM
  • 32MB DRAM
  • 16MB Flash
  • 3.5″ 320×240, 16 bit
  • Full QWERTY keyboard
  • IrDA
  • CF/SD card slot
  • Launch date: May 2002

HP iPaq hx2110

This is also one of the three devices I added to my collection over the past few weeks – in fact, my brother gave it to me yesterday (he had no use for it any longer). Since the other iPaq mentioned earlier is pretty much done for, I’m quite happy with this one to play around with.

It’s fully functional. In fact, it almost feels brand-new.

  • Windows Mobile 2003 SE (my brother installed an unofficial Windows Mobile 6.1 Classic ROM onto it; I’m going to put a 6.5 ROM on it)
  • 312 MHz Intel PXA270
  • 64MB RAM
  • 64MB ROM
  • 3.5″ 320×240, 16 bit
  • Full QWERTY keyboard
  • Bluetooth/IrDA
  • CF/SD card slot
  • Launch date: autumn 2004

Sony Clié ‘Tess’ PEG-SL10/U

This is the third and final of my latest acquisitions. It’s an old PalmOS-based Sony Clié, nicknamed Tess because none other than Tess – from the OSNews podcast – gave it to me for the purposes of this series of articles. It’s the only PDA with a monochrome display in my humble collection, and that’s enough reason to like it. It’s fascinating to use a Sony PDA running PalmOS.

It’s fully functional.

  • PalmOS 4.1
  • 33Mhz Freescale Dragonball VZ processor (based on a 68000 core)
  • 8MB RAM (7MB user-accessible)
  • 4MB ROM
  • 3.5″ 320×320 16 grayscale monochrome display (with a backlight I don’t know how to turn on yet)
  • Powered by two AAA batteries
  • IrDA
  • Sony Memory Stick slot
  • Launch date: autumn 2002

Palm Tungsten E2

By far the prettiest of the bunch, with its full metal casing and remarkably sturdy design. What wasn’t very sturdy, sadly, was the battery, which is broken. It only works when plugged in. I’ve used the E2 quite extensively alongside the iPaq h2215 back in the day, and apart from the HTC Artemis below, it’s the only PDA I actually bought myself new (the others are all gifts from Eugenia, Tess, and my brother; or, in case of the T|X, bought used).

It’s partially functional; the battery is dead.

  • Palm OS Garnet, 5.4.7
  • 200 MHz Intel XScale PXA 270
  • 32MB memory (29MB user-accessible)
  • 320×320, 16 bit
  • Bluetooth
  • SD card slot
  • Launch date: April 2005

HTC Artemis

A weird entrant into this group, since it’s not actually a PDA, but a smartphone. The HTC Artemis was my cell phone of choice for a while, and while flipping out that damn stylus on the go was annoying, it was still an incredibly capable smartphone with access to all of Windows Mobile’s applications. I booted it up today for the first time in three years, and it reminded me I needed to go to work tomorrow. I stopped working there 2.5 years ago.

It’s fully functional.

  • Microsoft Windows Mobile 5.0 Pocket PC Phone Edition (that’s its full name)
  • 201 MHz TI OMAP850
  • 128Mb ROM
  • 64MB RAM
  • 320×240, 16 bit
  • Bluetooth
  • GPS, GPRS EDGE, quad-band GSM
  • WiFi (IEEE 802.11b/g)
  • micro-SD card slot
  • Launch date: October 2006


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