MJFChat: Why handheld PCs are making a comeback

We’re doing a twice-monthly interview show on Petri.com that is dedicated to covering topics of interest to our tech-professional audience. We have branded this show “MJFChat.”

In my role as Petri’s Community Magnate, I will be interviewing a variety of IT-savvy technology folks. Some of these will be Petri contributors; some will be tech-company employees; some will be IT pros. We will be tackling various subject areas in the form of 30-minute audio interviews. I will be asking the questions, the bulk of which we’re hoping will come from you, our Petri.com community of readers.

We will ask for questions a week ahead of each chat. Readers can submit questions via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and/or LinkedIn using the #AskMJF hashtag. Once the interviews are completed, we will post the audio and associated transcript in the forums for readers to digest at their leisure. (By the way, did you know MJFChats are now available in podcast form? Go here for Spotify; here for Apple Podcasts on iTunes; and here for Google Play.)

Our next MJFChat, scheduled for Monday, March 16, is all about the resurgence of handheld PCs. My special guest is Mike Halsey, a Windows Experience MVP and Windows book author and course creator. We want you to submit your best questions for Mike ahead of our chat.

Microsoft historians may remember the good old/bad old days of ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs). Microsoft has continued to look for unique ways to stay relevant in the mobile space with Windows — and soon, with its Surface Duo device — Android, as well. Mike is ready to talk about why handheld mobile Windows devices are still interesting and relevant. He’ll take any questions, too, about what’s happening in this space; what should happen; and even about one of his favorite handheld devices, the Gemini PDA. So make sure to chime in with any questions or topics you’d like to hear him cover.

Also: If you know someone you’d like to see interviewed on the MJFChat show, including yourself, send me a note at [email protected]. (Let me know why you think this person would be an awesome guest and what topics you’d like to see covered.) We’ll take things from there….


Mary Jo Foley (00:00): Hi, you’re listening to Petri.com’s MJF Chat show. I am Mary Jo Foley, AKA your Petri.com community magnet and I am here to interview tech industry experts about various topics that you, our readers and listeners want to know about. Today’s MJF chat is going to be all about the comeback of handheld PCs and my special guest today is Mike Halsey, a Windows Experience MVP, Windows book author and course creator. Welcome, Mike. Thanks for doing this chat.

Mike Halsey (00:38): Hi, it’s great to be here. Thanks.

Mary Jo Foley (00:40): Yeah, our original plan was for Mike to do this chat while he was in Seattle for the MVP summit this week, but sadly due to the Covid-19 worries, Mike is not in Seattle and the MVP summit is a virtual-only event this time, but I’m still glad we get to do this even if it’s across the pond.

Mike Halsey (01:01): I’m just unfortunately stuck in the middle of the French countryside with a case of wine.

Mary Jo Foley (01:05): That sounds terrible.

Mike Halsey (01:05): It’s horrible. But I’ll suffer through it.

Mary Jo Foley (01:12): Good. So let’s talk a little about the history of handheld PCs because I remember not that long ago writing quite a few stories about UMPCs I actually thought at the time, this might be my ideal form factor because I really care a lot about portability, UMPC usage. But as I recall, the battery life maybe wasn’t so great and they never really took off. So what, I’m curious why you think UMPCs failed. Do you think it was that they were ahead of their time or not a good idea, not well-built? Like what’s your assessment now in hindsight?

Mike Halsey (01:51): Well, you have to consider that a lot of these were on the market before we had mobile internet and a lack of mobile internet when people were discovering the internet and they were starting to do things online. Having a portable device that couldn’t connect to the internet was just a killer. For me there’s also, I think a manufacturing reason why devices such as the Psio Series 5 and the Nokia Communicator and whatnot and Blackberry’s as well. Didn’t stand the test of time and it’s because manufacturers, and this is my opinion, I’ve got no evidence of this, but it’s cheaper for manufacturers to create handheld devices where the keyboard is done in software. So there’s a bigger profit margin to be made. So there was more incentive for mobile device manufacturers to make smartphones and jump on the iPhone bandwagon. Then there was to create devices with physical keyboards that are much more expensive and have to be configured for each individual country and market that you sell them in.

Mary Jo Foley (03:04): That makes sense. Yeah. My very first quote, smartphone was an LG device, it had a physical keyboard and I loved that thing. I was like, I can never type on glass. I need the physical keyboard. But of course I adjusted over time. But yeah, I loved it.

Mike Halsey (03:20): We all do. But eventually I reached a point with myself where I just couldn’t cope with autocorrect anymore. So when these devices with physical keyboards started to reappear, I’ve got three of them now, three different ones. And I just love them to bits, but there’s lots of other reasons you know why, I think there’s a lot of reasons why these things are making a comeback.

Mary Jo Foley (03:46): Okay. So I want you to talk about these devices that you just referred to. I believe you’re talking about the Gemini PDA, right?

Mike Halsey (03:55): Yeah. I’ve got three. I own the Gemini PDA, which is, it’s designed by the guy who created the Pscion Series 5 back in the 90s, which was hugely popular and it’s got the same physical keyboard. It’s got really good travel on it. And I also own the Cosmo Communicator, which is from the same company, they’re both made by a British company called Planet Computers based in London. And the Cosmo is, it’s supposed to be sort of the spiritual successor to the Nokia Communicator, which was very popular and that takes the Gemini and it adds a keyboard backlight, external screen. But I’ve also got another device also by British companies. Interesting that it’s the Brits that are kind of leading the way in this, called a Pro 1 from a company called FX Tech, which is, kind of like a pop-up screen with a small, you know, that like bubble keyboard that you’d get.

Mike Halsey (05:03): And that’s, you know, a really interesting device as well. But also in this category, you’ve got other, I wouldn’t describe them as mobile devices, but you’ve got things like the GPD Pocket Range, which are brief and very popular as well because of their size and portability and power. And also in the case of those the fact that they run Windows,

Mary Jo Foley (05:29): The Gemini and the Cosmos don’t run Windows or do they?

Mike Halsey (05:32): No, it would be brilliant if they did. But I think that it’s more a case of because they run on processes in order to make sure that they have, you know, good battery life and you know, good features. The Windows on arm is just not at that stage yet where it’s ready.

Mary Jo Foley (05:54): Right, right. So, what do you like about these? I mean, I understand the portability aspect and the weight and the fact that you could just kind of throw them in your pocket and go, as you know, because I harp on it so much, I’m a big lap ability focused person, but that’s more for like a laptop for me and I really want to have a device that’s much smaller, but that’s still very usable. Do you think these things like the Gemini and the Cosmos will ever gain any traction, like real, real substantial traction

Mike Halsey (06:31): In some markets, I can see these things becoming more and more popular, whether they’ll ever become what we would call truly mainstream, I have no idea. Probably not. But there are some markets. For example, programmers it’s useful for program. You can’t program on a touch screen,

Mary Jo Foley (06:57): Right.

Mike Halsey (06:57): You can’t do that on you know an onscreen keyboard. System administrators also find it useful because they’ve got to do programming. I’ve heard from system administrators who bought the Gemini, firstly because these devices, all of these devices congeal boot with Linux and they could carry it around all the time. They could monitor data centers and other systems and they didn’t have to permanently have a laptop with them at long last. So there were advantages.

Mike Halsey (07:30): I mean, for me, I have never liked onscreen keyboards from the very first time I saw the original iPhone. I ust didn’t, I just took an instant dislike to the onscreen keyboard. I’m an old fashioned guy. I like the, you know, the tactile experience. And also if you’re typing a long email or a long message, I mean, I’m an author, a writer. I write a lot. You can’t write, the Gemini, the Cosmo, the FX tech, are brilliant, but you’d never write a book on one, let alone, you can write a long email. So it’s better for that.

Mary Jo Foley (08:15): Okay. And what’s the price range of these kinds of devices

Mike Halsey (08:20): At the moment, the ones that are on the market are around about the sort of $600 mark. There”s some variation in that

Mary Jo Foley (08:29): They’re cheaper than a lot of smartphones basically.

Mike Halsey (08:33): Yeah, they’re cheaper than the high end smartphones. But you’re not getting, with any of these things, you are getting a mobile productivity device. You are not buying a high end camera. None of them will come with, you know, the Cosmo has got a Samsung camera in it, but it’s certainly not the sort of thing that you’d see, you know, in the latest Galaxy or Note devices.

Mary Jo Foley (08:56): Yeah. So, given you just brought up camera, let’s talk about what Microsoft is doing in this space now. Because for a while they had just kind of abandoned this space. There was talk and a lot of rumors about Andromeda, which was going to be basically the Surface phone, right? It was going to be a Windows-based device that was as small as a phone. And then Microsoft tabled that. But instead they came out with the Duo, which is going to be launching sometime this year, a dual screen Android base device. What’s your initial impression of the duo from everything you’ve read and seen so far?

Mike Halsey (09:33): Well, we’ve had a lot of time now to think about, the Duo and the Neo. I love the flip over keyboard on the Neo. I think that could make that device very popular indeed.

Mary Jo Foley (09:45): Oh yeah, the wonder bar thing. Yep.

Mike Halsey (09:48): Yeah. Flip over hardware keyboard. As far as the Duo goes, initially, my initial reaction was that this was a product looking for a market. But this is what Microsoft do with Surface devices. I’ve met Panos Panay at the MVP summit, a few years back and he was very clear that Microsoft with Surface devices like to create new markets and like to push the boundaries. And if you look at, I was very skeptical about the new folding phones, like the Samsung Fold and other ones. But if you actually look at photos and videos of how people are using these devices, they are using them like mini laptops. So I can actually see people using the Duo in same way. Bearing in mind that Microsoft’s focus has been on services and products now. So unless you’re doing something particularly demanding or you need to use Access or Microsoft Project or something, you can do what you need to do on an Android device or an iOS device. So I can see people using the Duo like a mini laptop and having the onscreen keyboard on one screen, perhaps with a little toolbar at the top of it. And it’ll be interesting to see what modifications from Microsoft make to Androids, you know, with Google’s help. Cause obviously they’re working very closely to enable additional functionality such as toolbars and the like. So I think it could, it’s got the potential to be very, very useful for people.

Mary Jo Foley (11:34): Are there, when you think about these kinds of devices, especially the Android-based Duo, do you have like a checklist in your mind where you say it’s got to have this, this and this to be successful and the reason I’m asking you that is one of our readers, Ella Sandro Anna Flows said, do we really think the Duo is not going to have NFC or QI charging? So I’m curious what you think must be there for this to take off and what matters less.

Mike Halsey (12:03): Personally, I’m a huge fan of wireless charging, but it does have limitations. Firstly, it makes devices fatter and, if it doesn’t make devices fatter, it can result in them having less battery in them. And it also, it’s not as quick to charge. We’ve got some very quick charging technologies now, so I can see why even though wireless charging would be desirable in these devices, it’s not in any of them. And frankly, I wouldn’t expect the Duo to support wireless charging because it is incredibly thin anyway. And on the Duo you’d have to put wireless charging on both sides of it because you know how else do you know which way down you’re going to put it? NFC is personally, I see NFC as more of a consumer technology and the Duo as more of a business device because NFC is mostly used for mobile payments. So if NFC wasn’t in the Duo then I wouldn’t be surprised at that either to be honest.

Mary Jo Foley (13:06): Do you think the camera is going to matter in the Duo? Because here’s my thinking. I don’t think they’re going to have a great camera setup at least initially on this device. And that’s just my personal take based on kind of hints they’ve dropped. But does it matter that much? You know, all of us are calling this a phone, but Microsoft doesn’t want us to think about it as a phone. They want us to think about it as like a mini dual-screen organizer kind of thing. So if it doesn’t have a great camera, do you think people will still buy it and will they care?

Mike Halsey (13:39): It’s quite likely that for a while, at least the people who buy the Duo and I’m almost certainly going to get one myself. It’s quite likely that this will not be their only mobile device. This will be a professional device and that they will also have a smartphone in the majority of cases. I see that being the majority of Duo owners, it won’t be their only device. So I don’t think it matters really in that regard. To be perfectly honest, if you asked my opinion, if there were fewer people taking photographs in the world of their lunch, or their cat, then, you know, I think the world might be a slightly better place.

Mary Jo Foley (14:25): Hey, Hey, I resemble that remark. I take a lot of pictures of my cat. You know, the part about carrying more than one device is what I wonder about, right? Because over the years people always say is whatever new thing coming onto the market, compelling enough to be your third device because that’s assuming people are carrying a PC of some type or a tablet and a phone and then you’ll have this third kind of device. But you know, more and more, I’m thinking maybe so few people anymore carry PCs, like that number has gone way down, especially among younger people. Maybe we’re back to dual devices, but one is something like a Duo and the other one’s your smartphone.

Mike Halsey (15:16): Well, millennials are an interesting case here because we’ve known for a while now, that millennials don’t like old communication systems like email and they much prefer, you know, these are people who have grown up with the app model and not with clunky big desktop software. I mean, you know, let’s compare, I know you talk about this on Windows Weekly quite a bit. How awful the Outlook Win 32 program is, when compared to, you know, the web app. So millennials prefer these, you know, new methods of communication like Teams and Slack, but they still want to be able to get things done.

Mary Jo Foley (16:01): Right.

Mike Halsey (16:02): And I think we’ve, not only have manufacturers hit a problem with, even mid-range, smartphones now look and operate and have the same stuff in them as the high-end smartphones.

Mike Halsey (16:14): But I think we’ve hit a limit of what you can actually do with a smart phone, which is why these devices exist and why Microsoft have created the Duo and why the Gemini and the Cosmo and the Pro 1 all exist because people have got, we’ve got ubiquitous internet, we have internet wherever we go, people can get stuff done. And it’s not like they’re being forced to get it done by their employer. But people actually want to be able to do things. So if you can have a device that’s as powerful in your pocket as a desktop PC was only a few years ago, but that can allow you to do more than a smartphone, then I can see that being very popular. And millennials, they, you know, these people who would probably never have heard of a Pscio Series 3 or Nokia Communicators and might not even ever have heard of a Blackberry, but if they’re looking for something that will help them get more done, then these are exactly the sorts of devices that they’ll be drawn to.

Mary Jo Foley (17:22):
Okay. What do you think about foldables versus dual screen? I mean, Microsoft’s trying to make a case that having two screens with a gutter between them actually will make you more productive than having a single screen.

Mike Halsey (17:37): I used to, in the house I used to have, where I live in the UK until last year. There’s a wooden pillar in the middle of the living room, which when I was sat at my computer in the living room and I was watching TV, the wooden pillar would frequently be in the middle of the TV screen. And I can assure you, it didn’t make my viewing experience any easier. That said, I think Microsoft are doing it the right way and foldable screens are in their infancy. There’s so many, so many problems with them. You can’t fold glass.

Mary Jo Foley (18:16): Right, not well anyway.

Mike Halsey (18:18): Yeah, certainly not well. So I think Microsoft are taking the right approach because Samsung have got an enormous amount of, I mean if you consider the size of Microsoft as a company and then you compare them to Samsung, remember the Samsung don’t just do electronics, they sell military vehicles and they’ve got a shipping company, and all sorts, they have a lot of money to throw at R&D and things like this.

Mike Halsey (18:45): And also to cover the warranty costs, the inevitable warranty costs. So I think Microsoft are doing it the right way. Maybe in five years time things will have improved. The technology will be better, the screens will be better. They’re getting in a lot of practice and it’s good that they’re doing that, but Microsoft are doing it the right way now.

Mary Jo Foley (19:05): Hmm. Do you consider the Surface Go and the Surface Neo that’s coming later this year to be handheld PCs? And what do you think about those as something cool and new in the category?

Mike Halsey (19:21): I had a Surface Go.

Mary Jo Foley (19:23): Yep, me too.

Mike Halsey (19:24): I used it for watching TV in my office because it was perfect because of the kickstand. You could also put things, like the GPD Pocket into this category. Are they really handhelds? I think the definition of a handheld is can you use it whilst walking down the street and for things like that and for, you know, an iPad with a keyboard, no, you can’t use these things walking down the street.

Mike Halsey (19:49): So I would describe them as ultra-mobile. You know, the UMPC thing, I would describe them as ultra-mobile just because of the convenience of, you know a woman can throw one in a handbag. And it’s a good size for that. Lots of people have to carry laptops around with them and really hate the fact that they have to do that.

Mary Jo Foley (20:12): Right.

Mike Halsey (20:12): So, there’s a category that was basically I think invented by the 10 inch iPad. That is useful, but no, it’s a different category to a proper handheld.

Mary Jo Foley (20:26): Yeah. I really was excited about the Go when I first got one because I thought, okay, this is perfect.I can put it in my bag, I can take it on the road. If I have to type a quick blog post, I’ll be able to do that.

Mary Jo Foley (20:37): But then when I actually tried to do that, the keyboard was just a little too small and a little too tight and I made so many errors. I said, you know what, it’s good for like a one-line answer on an email but not really for a computing experience in a mobile setting for me.

Mike Halsey (20:53): Yeah. And you’ll get this with the Gemini and the Cosmo communicator as well, that keyboard’s even smaller still. And no matter how well designed they are, you know, you’re not going to write a really long article on it. You’ll do that on a device with a proper keyboard.

Mary Jo Foley (21:12): Right.

Mike Halsey (21:14): So each of these things have their uses. For example, you might say, let’s say you’re going off to, Build or Ignite if they ever happen, and you don’t want to be traveling heavy.

Mike Halsey (21:32): You don’t want to be taking too much stuff with you. And you might find that one of these handhelds can replace your laptop and your phone on that trip. So I can see people having handhelds and having a Duo, but not using it all the time, not using it day to day, using it, having a specific use case for it and saying, well, you know, this is my device. A couple of years ago when I went to the MVP Summit in Redmond, I only took my Gemini and I found that, you know, I could do on it everything I needed to do, it might’ve been a bit tight sometimes. But you know, that was actually the MVP Summit when I ended up in intensive care with pneumonia. So that created some challenges because I had to book extra flights back afterward and find more hotels. So let’s say it could be challenging but it can be done.

Mary Jo Foley (22:29): Okay. And you’re living proof. You know what we haven’t talked about is pens and how much you think pens will and won’t figure into the whole handheld PC equation.

Mike Halsey (22:46): Pens are interesting because they’re not my preferred way of working, but they have been, Samsung has made them hugely popular. Microsoft have made them really work on larger devices, on Surface devices, and you know, even Apple who under Steve Jobs were never going to adopt a pen, have a pen. So I think, you can’t use them on some devices, I can see a pen possibly being a little bit fiddly to use on a Surface Duo just because of the size of the device when it’s open, possibly being a little fiddly. But when you think, if you think back to the 90’s and we had the Palm Pilots and the compact, the IPAC, then with a duo in its sort of single-screen mode, folded back, then yeah, I can see that working every bit as well as it does on a Samsung Galaxy Note.

Mary Jo Foley (23:52): Yeah, I’m also not a big pen user, but my boss, one of my bosses loved, I think it was called the Palm Fold or something that had a pen and swore by it. So I know, it just depends on your workflow, I think pretty much.

Mike Halsey (24:09): Yeah. But the great thing is that because the cost of these devices and the cost of the components and crucially the cost of manufacturing, has been dropping quite substantially I think over the last five years that we can now have more choice. And I think this is just fantastic for the market overall. There’s lots of different types of device now to give people that choice, which when you think about it for a long, long time, we didn’t have at all.

Mary Jo Foley (24:45): True. All right. Put your crystal ball in front of you where you’re sitting. What kinds of handhelds do you think we’re going to see in the next year or two that we don’t know about yet? Any predictions of like form factor, size, type of material, anything that you wish for or that you think actually could materialize that we haven’t seen?

Mike Halsey (25:09): I think it’s more likely that over the next few years, over the next couple of years anyway, we’ll see an evolution of what we’ve already got rather than a revolution. I’m always interested to see, to watch Lenovo in this space because they really, really innovate. I mean, you know, Microsoft had done some fantastic innovation with the Surface range and Samsung has done some great innovation, but when it comes to the people, you know at the top of the tree for this, then, the small form factor devices that Lenovo have come out with are very interesting indeed. So they’ll, they’ll be interesting to watch. If somebody is going to do it first, it’s probably going to be them.

Mary Jo Foley (25:53): I think you’re right. They are not afraid to take risks. And probably like you said before if you have the manufacturing capacity and the diversified portfolio, you’re more open to just, seeing what sticks, right?

Mike Halsey (26:10): Yeah. Not everything that Lenovo have released has worked, but some of them work really well and it’s just great to see you, you know, companies that aren’t afraid to release products that other people would call niche.

Mary Jo Foley (26:25): Yes, I agree. Well, Mike, we are out of time, but thank you so much for doing this. It was really fun and I really appreciate your time and your insights.

Mike Halsey (26:34): Thank you very much.

Mary Jo Foley (26:36): For everyone else listening to this podcast, all you MJF Chat readers and listeners, I’ll be posting more information soon on Petri about who my next guest will be. Once you see that you can submit questions on Twitter directly for that guest. In the meantime, if you know of anyone else or even yourself who might make a good guest for one of these chats, please don’t hesitate to drop me a note. All my contact information is available on Petri.com. Thank you very much.