Handheld computers and minimalist "Windows-based Terminal" computers could turn into one and the same thing next year, a trend which would boost the popularity of both types of devices as well as the Windows CE operating system.
The convergence of these two markets would come as a result of new, larger form factors in the handheld arena. NEC Computer Systems, Hewlett-Packard, and others have already announced (or stated an intention) to manufacture Windows CE devices that are closer in size to mini-notebooks.
Windows-based Terminals (WBT) are essentially new age "dumb terminals" that do not perform independent processing. Instead, all processing is done on a server; the desktop and server communicate through a networking software layer from Citrix and Microsoft, which in turn runs on Windows NT.
WBTs will use Windows CE as a local operating system.
By adding a docking station and larger keyboards, meanwhile, diminutive handheld units could then function as a desktop terminal computer because it shares the Windows CE platform with the WBT.
Jacques Clay, vice president and general manger of the extended desktop business unit at HP, said that HP is looking at "the docking strategy" for larger form factor CE devices. HP has plans to come out with a larger CE device in 1998. The device would cost around $800, and with a docking station, could be used to run CE or Windows NT.
If successful, such a product could redefine usage patterns, he said.
"This is not a technology issue at all. My suspicion is that the dock is adding Ethernet capability," said Martin Reynolds, analyst at Dataquest. "Both markets would benefit. This is the [total cost of computer ownership] story for [terminals], with the added bonus of some mobility to encourage users to follow it," he said.
Handheld computers and WBTs represent markets that are both potentially large and currently unproven.
Windows CE handhelds that are the size of sub-notebook PCs, referred to as "mini-notebooks," represent a fairly substantial opportunity, according to Mike McGuire, mobile computing analyst at Dataquest.
"At worst, [larger CE devices] could fundamentally shift the entire market," McGuire told CNET earlier, adding that "The [Toshiba] Libretto [mini-notebook] brings a new form factor, but it doesn't do anything about the operating system or battery life."
NEC showcased the first of its bigger CE device last week at Comdex. The MobilePro 700, which will be released in December, is 9.6 inches wide and 4.8 inches deep, larger than most CE devices. It weighs 1.5 pounds.
"We could use the MobilePro 700 as a Windows-based Terminal," commented Joseph Wei, director of product management, server marketing, at NEC.
WBTs have both boosters and detractors. Clay, for one, said that "thin client" devices, which includes terminals, network computers (NCs), and other non-PC desktops, could account for 20 to 25 percent of the desktop market. Others put the figure at between 5 and 15 percent.
Even if a convergence of the large CE and WBT is possible, it may not occur overnight. Bob Gilbertson, chief executive officer of Network Computing Devices, said his company has no plans for a mobile terminal.