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Windows on every palmtop?

Microsoft is following through on its promise to make the Windows CE operating system run across several platforms.

Microsoft (MSFT) is following through on its promise to make the Windows CE operating system run across several platforms.

The company today announced support for both PowerPC and ARM chips, and sources say that it also plans to announce support for Intel's x86 platform within the next week.

Microsoft today said at the Handheld PDA Expo in San Mateo, California, that it will port its Windows CE operating system to Motorola's MPC 821 and 823 PowerPC chips, low-powered versions of the chips currently found in digital cameras and bar code scanners.

Motorola officials said that handheld computers powered by the PowerPC chips could be available as early as next spring, but declined to name the manufacturers.

Microsoft is also tweaking Windows CE to run on ARM-based processors from Digital Equipment and Cirrus Logic. Again, no hardware vendors came forward to announce plans for devices that use the chips.

The two platforms will give CE developers a total of four different chip architectures to choose from when designing their Windows CE handhelds. Until today, they had to pick between a 32-bit SH-3 processor from Hitachi and MIPS-based processors from NEC and Philips announced at Comdex.

Supporting multiple hardware architectures is intended to provide a more open marketplace in which multiple vendors can participate, a strategy that most handheld systems haven't followed.

Although Microsoft said nothing today about a possible rewrite of Windows CE for Intel's x86 platform, a source close to Intel said that an announcement should come within the next week.

Intel will reciprocate by introducing a low-power x86 chip for Windows CE devices. The source indicated that the new chip could be a repackaged version of an existing low-power 486 processor, code-named Hummingbird, although Intel has also indicated in the past that the company is considering development of a low-power Pentium-class processor for Windows CE devices.

Motorola product manager Ken Edwards said the PowerPC architecture has an advantage on the Hitachi and MIPS-based chips because Windows NT applications already run on PowerPC. That means that software developers can simply rewrite NT applications for Windows CE instead of having to start from scratch, he said.

But one Windows CE software developer said the bottom line is still simply speed and price. "The inherent advantage to writing to any platform is number of units sold," said Jay Wright, president of Wright Strategies. "If it uses less power and is cheaper, then developers will be interested."