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Microsoft adds yet another mobile OS

Company announces Windows Embedded Handheld, an operating system designed for the rugged handhelds used by package handlers, shop floor workers, and others.

If Microsoft is hurting for mobile customers, it's certainly not because it has a lack of different mobile operating systems.

The company already has Windows Embedded Compact (formerly Windows CE), Windows Mobile 6.5, and the forthcoming Windows Phone 7. The new Windows Phone is based, like previous versions of Windows Mobile, on the Windows CE core, but Phone 7 won't be able to run programs written for earlier Windows Phones. There's also the Kin, which runs its own flavor of the Windows Phone software.

Now, Microsoft is putting another brand in the mix, adding something called Windows Embedded Handheld. Though it can be used to make phones, this is really aimed at the kind of rugged devices that might be used by UPS or a retail worker stocking shelves, as opposed to the traveling executive.

To further complicate things, Microsoft on Wednesday outlined two versions of the software--one coming in the second half of this year and the other in the second half of next year--and each has a different operating system at its core.

Perhaps the best way to think about it--at least if I have it straight--is to think of the first Windows Embedded Handheld as an update to Windows Mobile 6.5 for business applications. That software uses the same WinForms and Visual Studio 2008 tools for developers as did Windows Mobile 6.5. In that sense, today's announcement is good news for businesses that rely on ruggedized Windows Mobile 6.5 devices, as there will be a new crop of devices based on updated software.

The second version, the one coming late next year, meanwhile, is built on top of Windows Embedded Compact 7, which is a new version of what historically has been called Windows CE. Announced earlier this year, Windows Embedded Compact 7 is currently in preview, with a final release due out in the fourth quarter. It adds some interesting technologies, including an improved browser and support for Adobe Flash.

What is less clear is what developers will need to do to write applications for that version of Windows Embedded Handheld. Microsoft has promised some "migration path" between the current Windows Mobile 6.5 and that software, but isn't giving details.

All of these different operating systems create a headache for Microsoft watchers and maybe for some businesses trying to figure out where to spend their time. Consumers, fortunately, can probably just skip over this, since any phone they'd want to buy won't be written on any of these enterprise handheld operating systems. Windows Phone 7, or perhaps the Kin, are the only things aimed at them.

The one area that could be interesting to watch is whether any consumer slates are built on Windows Embedded Compact 7--that's the new version of Windows CE. Microsoft has said that tablets are among the kinds of devices that can be built around Windows Embedded Compact.

That said, Microsoft is providing only the base tools to device makers. That leaves room for hardware companies to come out with a wide range of products with different features, but also virtually guarantees that applications written for one of those devices wouldn't work with another.

ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley also tries to sort through all the options, in this post.