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Gates shows off prototype wireless device

MiPad signals Microsoft's intent to be a major player in the booming market for handheld and other non-PC devices.

Microsoft continues to signal its intent to be a major player in the booming market for handheld and other non-PC devices.

At an industry conference in Miami this week, chairman Bill Gates demonstrated a prototype of a next-generation wireless telephony device based on a future Windows CE-based operating system.

The prototype, dubbed MiPad, is Microsoft's concept device for handheld wireless access. MiPad integrates most of the functions of a Microsoft product, called Pocket PC, intended for release next month. The company stressed that MiPad is a prototype only and is not scheduled for release soon. But the concept version demonstrated integrates many cutting-edge technologies, including voice recognition and wireless access.

Like Pocket PC, MiPad include address book, email and calendar functions. But MiPad adds a high-speed wireless connection and voice recognition, allowing the device to recognize verbal instructions to call contacts from the address book and allowing users to speak to callers directly through the device.

MiPad is the latest indication that Microsoft is committed to aggressively targeting the burgeoning information appliance market.

Microsoft, along with other PC and consumer electronics companies, is positioning itself for a possible future where non-PC and wireless systems are commonly used and may displace the PC as the primary means of computing for consumers and business users.

Microsoft has been experimenting with a variety of devices, some with wireless Internet access. These non-PC appliances and devices are expected to saturate the market in the next few years, which explains why technology companies are now angling for their cut of future revenues. Overall, the market for devices, including set-top boxes, handheld computers and gaming consoles, is expected to grow from 11 million units shipped in 1999 to 89 million units in 2004. The market will grow from revenues of $2.4 billion last year to $17.8 billion in 2004, according to research from International Data Corp.

Although Microsoft has struck numerous high-profile deals and made huge investments in its set-top box and handheld software efforts, the company has yet to make much of an impact in the new market. In the handheld sector, for example, Windows CE-based devices have only captured about 10 percent of the market, according to IDC. Rival Palm has about 70 percent of the market.

In addition to the Pocket PCs, which are set to be released on April 19, the company has been working on other wireless digital devices. One, code-named Stinger, has been in the works for over a year, but Microsoft has not indicated that it is anywhere near ready to be released.

Microsoft is positioning these devices as complements to the PC, not replacements. "One of the things we were trying to illustrate there is this idea of it being a multi-device world," Gates said in his speech. "All of the contacts, the calendar, were set up on the PC, but then when he got to the MiPad device, the information was there."

Handheld devices in particular could benefit from speech technology, according to Microsoft research, because of the awkwardness of the current pen or keyboard methods for inputting data. Microsoft and especially Gates have long pushed the futuristic concept as the future of data input.

However, other handheld experts like Palm co-founder Jeff Hawkins, have voiced skepticism about the viability of the technology in handheld devices. Hawkins has criticized voice recognition for being non-intuitive and requiring far more hardware capacity than handheld devices can realistically offer.