Microsoft banking on upgraded Windows CE

With a name change and new features, the spotlight is on Microsoft's last-ditch effort to find a winning combination for Windows CE in the sub-PC marketplace.

Microsoft will ship to hardware OEMs early next quarter an upgraded version of Windows CE, with improvements to give the operating system real-time OS capabilities plus even more new applications and features.

Included in the upcoming version are multithreading capabilities that, if robust enough, can be used as the OS for mobile phones.

"RTOS [real-time OS] doesn't mean much for handheld or palm devices, but it makes all the difference in the embedded applications [such as cellular phones]," said David Hayden, a senior analyst at Mobile Insights, in the US.

In addition, Microsoft will add a File Explorer component for Palm devices to manage files and applications, and an electronic book, or e-book, reader application leveraging Microsoft's ClearType technology.

Windows CE's browser capabilities will be boosted as well, with functionality bringing it more in line with Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0, which can use plug-ins and read Web sites scripted in Java.

Last week, Microsoft announced that handheld and palm-based devices running the Windows CE OS will be dubbed "Windows Powered," rather than burdening systems with a name that is considered by most industry experts to be an unsuccessful product line.

Microsoft admits that OEMs need to have products on the shelves, proving their worth six months before December 2000, and that Microsoft can't afford to miss another holiday season.

But system OEMs are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the operating system that Microsoft wants them to use on personal digital assistant-type products. Both Philips and Everex recently abandoned the platform.

Another vendor is still on board, but is troubled by Windows CE's problems.

"We see a couple of deficiencies [in Windows CE] that explain why it is not dominating," said a product manager at one of the major Windows CE system vendors.

Among the problem areas cited by the product manager were an inconsistency in versions of the system that run on different microprocessors and differences between the handheld and palm features.

"There is a tremendous lack of consistency between the products," the product manager said.

Windows CE uses seven different processors, which gives vendors such a large matrix of features to mix and match that it adds to the inconsistency between various vendors' systems.

In addition, the Palm PC version does not, up to this point, include a print API, whereas the handheld PC version does. In addition, the handheld version has no native printing capability out of Pocket PowerPoint or Internet Explorer.

At the same time, 3Com's PalmPilot division appears to be reacting to what users want at closer to Internet speeds. The recently announced OmniSky wireless solution for Palm V users was funded for the most part by 3Com and launched within months of the company's creation.

OmniSky is offering users a complete wireless solution that will include the wireless modem, software integration, and a fixed-rate service capable of using all of the major wireless protocols at a cost of $50 per month.

While Microsoft continues to add more complexity to the OS, the company has yet to offer an equivalent wireless solution.

"They still don't get it," according to Hayden. "Windows CE devices are still too cumbersome and too complex. A Windows CE device can do fifteen different things and a Palm does five things, but it does them well," he said.

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Ephraim Schwartz

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