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Microsoft pours testers a shot of "Talisker"

The software giant releases the first test version of its next-generation operating system that will replace Windows CE 3.0.

Microsoft on Tuesday introduced the first test version of "Talisker," its next-generation operating system aimed at a variety of handheld gadgets, Internet appliances and factory automation equipment.

As earlier reported, Beta 1 of Talisker, which is being given to 300 testers, touts several improvements to its predecessor, Windows CE 3.0. Chief among those are beefed-up security, a more easily customized user interface and a technology called Media Sense, which lets gadget owners know what types of network connections are available.

The commercial version of Talisker, expected at the end of the year, will also add support for several .Net services from Microsoft, including instant messaging and Passport authentication service.

"There's a focus on connectivity," Microsoft Product Manager Megan Kidd said Monday.

Talisker is the code name for the operating system. Kidd said the company has not decided on a formal name yet. Among other things, Talisker is a type of single-malt Scotch whisky distilled on Scotland's Isle of Skye.

The new operating system is aimed at the same wide range of markets served by Windows CE 3.0, Kidd said.

The beta version now being released and the final version due late this year both support Bluetooth, a wireless radio technology that lets devices within 30 feet of each other communicate.

By contrast, Microsoft said last week that it won't support Bluetooth in its desktop Windows XP operating system, noting that hardware and software development has progressed slower than originally hoped. Microsoft is instead including support in Windows XP for 802.11, a wireless communications standard that allows people to access a wireless corporate network.

Still, adding Bluetooth to Talisker is important to Microsoft because there is increasing interest in connecting portable devices to one another and to the Internet.

"Wireless, overall, is a big goal for Talisker," Kidd said.

Bluetooth and Media Sense are two features likely to find their way into next-generation handhelds once Talisker becomes the basis for Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system, Kidd said. The current handhelds made by Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard and Casio now use a version of Pocket PC based on Windows CE 3.0.

The inclusion of Media Sense will allow someone with a Pocket PC-based handheld to find out, for example, whether there is a Bluetooth-capable printer nearby.

The software giant plans another beta version of Talisker, with wider testing, this summer. Microsoft has already been providing chipmakers with a sneak peak at Talisker as part of a program aimed at enabling silicon makers to ensure that the operating system is optimized for their chips.

Microsoft also announced several new programs for Windows CE 3.0 developers Tuesday, including one that gives system integrators access to the Windows CE source code, although the companies are only allowed to make changes for internal testing and not in products that are released.