Windows is coming to handheld computers, or as Microsoft prefers to call them, HPCs. After six years of domination in the desktop and notebook markets, the software giant has finally found a way to produce a version of Windows that is small enough, fast enough and flexible enough to run on a handheld device.
Windows CE will be featured in a number of the HPCs that are scheduled for launch at Comdex, Las Vegas, later this month. It will also find its way into a wide range of the communications, entertainment and mobile computing devices that can communicate with each other, share information with Windows-based PCs and connect to the Internet.
Microsoft says that more than 50 leading hardware and software companies have committed themselves to developing handheld PC products based on the Windows CE platform. They include such names as Compaq, Casio, Hitachi and Philips, among others.
One of the first companies to reveal details on its Windows CE-based products was Casio. It announced in October that it had developed two new handheld PC devices using the technology, the Casiopeia A-10 and Casiopeia A-11. The main difference between the two is that the A-10 comes with 2Mb of Ram and sells for about $500, while the A-11 comes with 4Mb Ram and sells for about $700 .
What makes these devices stand out from the wide range of handheld offerings available without Windows CE is that they include specially designed versions of popular Microsoft applications - including a pocket version of the Internet Explorer browser. They also offer tight links to the Windows 95 operating system.
Microsoft is trying to position these systems as companions to desktop machines rather than as a replacement for them. Casio, for example, promises that its Casiopeia systems will offer automatic data links with any standard Windows 95 desktop PC when connected to an optional docking device.
Other handheld computers too, such as the Pilot from US Robotics, provide good file transfer capabilities in Windows 95, but the real difference is that devices like the Casiopeia will offer built-in versions of Pocket Word and Pocket Excel - slimline editions of Microsoft's popular wordprocessor and spreadsheet.
The inclusion of Pocket Mail allows users to send and receive email from any location, provided they have an Internet access account, a modem and a suitable phone line or other data connection, while the pocket Internet Explorer lets them to surf the Web.
Casio says its device is the result of its three-year collaboration with Microsoft. Craig Mundie, senior VP of the consumer platforms division at Microsoft, enthuses: 'The combination of Windows CE with Casio's leading technology will help guarantee the success of the HPC.'
Casio, of course, is not the only company waving the HPC flag in advance of the official Comdex launch. Late last month, Compaq announced it would develop a PC companion for the US market.
The company said that forthcoming products based on the Windows CE platform would 'provide millions of Windows-based computer users with convenient access to information on their PCs'. It also pledged that the first Compaq Windows CE systems would be available before the end of the year.
Compaq was careful to position its product as something to use alongside an existing PC. 'Compaq is establishing a new breed of companion-type products designed to help customers access and manipulate the massive amounts of personal and corporate information on their PCs and networks, both at work and at home,' says Ed Olkkola, VP of Compaq's communications division.
'The industry will be able to standardise on Windows CE architecture to develop complementary, compatible products for their customers.'
Compaq's Windows CE system will be particularly interesting because the company has been working on it for so long. Many suggest it came very close to launching a product two years ago and then backed away because it thought customers would be disappointed.
'Customers need a single solution that will keep their business and personal data current and instantly accessible when they can't be at their desks,' says Olkkola. 'Compaq is developing an indispensable business tool to exchange information with a PC.'
Compaq claims that by 'focusing on the pocket-sized device's link and synchronisation to other Windows-based computers', its entry into the handheld products arena complements its existing desktop and notebook products. It asserts that its target markets will include traditional corporate customers, small to medium businesses, home users and sophisticated consumers who purchase PC companions for their professional and personal advancement.
Some industry observers in the US suggest that the companion approach will help the Windows CE systems gain a market share that handheld computers have not traditionally enjoyed. 'Until now, no one handheld device could begin to satisfy the needs of all consumers as they strive to manage multiple data types scattered across numerous locations and accessible to them at different times,' says Andy Seybold, editor-in-chief of the US-based Outlook on Communications and Computing.
'Products which are based on the Windows CE platform, for the first time, will truly be companions to the PC, spawning a host of applications and portable productivity solutions,' adds Seybold.
Compaq boasts that with integrated support for a variety of leading personal information management (Pim) applications, including email, word-processing and spreadsheet and a standard Internet browser, its handheld offering will be an ideal tool for business and consumer PC owners.
It is worth noting that these handheld systems will not necessarily be running on Intel chips. In September, Microsoft and NEC Electronics jointly announced that NEC's VR4101 processor would be able to run Windows CE.
This single-chip 64-bit Mips Risc device was expected to be used in many CE-based computers.
The two companies said that the VR4101 was one of Microsoft's key reference platforms and that NEC engineers were assigned to the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington during the development of Windows CE.
'We have worked closely with Microsoft for two years to create a new processor optimised for Windows CE,' says Katsu Itagaki, advanced engineering marketing manager for NEC Electronics. 'The VR4101 Windows CE will set a new standard and allow system manufacturers to create an effective generation of handheld PCs.'
NEC says the VR4101 processor is optimised to provide Windows CE-based HPCs with a high-throughput, low-power-consumption device. The processor claims 33 Vax Mips performance and 132 Mips/ Watt performance at 3.3 V.
It further aims to provides many of the functions required by handheld PC manufacturers, such as modem capability and access to peripherals like the LCD screen, infra-red interface, audio interface, memory and keyboard in a single chip.
One highly touted feature of the processor is its high-speed multiply and accumulate (MAC) component. The MAC enables DSP-like instructions, so that using software emulation, the VR4101 device can act as a modem chip as well as the CPU. Developing such a communications-enabled portable device saves on manufacturing costs, and also uses up less space and power.
Of course, Microsoft does not keep all its eggs in one processor basket.
It has also worked with Hitachi to include support for its Risc-microprocessor in Windows CE.
Hitachi also says it is providing its 32-bit Super H Risc architecture-based SH-3 micro-processor as a key engine for the Windows CE platform.
The operating system has been ported to the SH-3, and as part of the collaboration, the development environment and Microsoft's Visual C language tool chain are available for use with the SH-3.
Several major OEMs of Windows CE-based handheld systems have selected the SH-3. They include Casio, Hewlett Packard and LG Electronics. In announcing the relationship between the two companies, Tsugio Makimoto, executive managing director of electronic components operations at Hitachi, claimed that his company's processor provides the best support for all the goodies in Windows CE.
'This collaboration will make available to the consumer, handheld and consumer appliance platforms that are designed for convenience and simplicity, including features such as long battery life, built-in communications and Windows compatibility.
'Microsoft is the pre-eminent developer of software technology. Hitachi, by virtue of its experience in integrated circuit technologies, is uniquely equipped to apply its skills to the success of the venture,' Makimoto explains.
Hitachi says that the SH is its flagship semiconductor product and claims that it has achieved considerable customer and market acceptance. 'It provides superior performance, particularly for personal access products, which inherently have low-power requirements and high code efficiency,' says Makimoto.
But none of these products will be viable in the long term if there they do not receive the right amount of software support. Microsoft reckons it has this under control. Last month it announced support for the CE platform from ACE Technologies, Agri Logic, Ararat Software, Goldmine Software, Joey Technologies, Landware, Nettech Systems, RW Information Technologies, Spyrus and Xircom.
According to Microsoft, all had committed to developing either software applications or hardware peripherals for the Windows CE platform.
Meanwhile, AT&T Wireless Services joined the list of companies committed to providing wireless messaging products and services for the platform.
The great thing for dealers about Windows CE is the way Microsoft is positioning the products as desktop companions. This means they can make logical add-on sales alongside a desktop package, while still being exciting enough to sell on their own merits. The short-term problem will be a lack of software designed for the platform. But Internet Explorer, Word and Excel should keep many happy for a considerable time to come.
If there's a single software franchise that's good at attracting developers, it has to be Microsoft and the various versions of Windows.
But it is not yet clear whether it will be enough to attract those who have wavered in their decision to buy a handheld system in the past and to allow the growing throng of Windows CE-compatible machines to make an appreciable dent in a market dominated by experienced players like Psion.
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