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Screens delay Windows CE handhelds

Shipments of some new Windows CE handhelds are being delayed, Microsoft has confirmed, with sources pointing to shortages of the devices' color displays as the reason.

Shipments of some new Windows CE handhelds have been delayed, Microsoft has confirmed, with sources pointing to shortages of the devices' color displays as the reason.

Microsoft and partners Philips, Casio, Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, and Everex announced next generation palm-size PCs back in March. However, to date, few have released products, and observers say it could be a while before all announced manufacturers are shipping.

Since launching the palm-size PCs last year, Microsoft and its partners have been in a race to catch up with Palm Computing and its popular line of Palm handhelds.

Hopes were pinned on the "Wyvern" class of products, as the devices with color displays were code-named, as Microsoft's best chance of putting a dent in Palm's 72 percent market share in handhelds. But several manufacturers have been hit by shortages of the color displays for CE handhelds, which differentiate the devices from their black and white predecessors. So far, only Compaq, HP, and Philips have begun shipping "Wyvern" products. Philips introduced its latest Nino handheld today, which uses the color display.

Everex, which announced its color Freestyle 540 in March, has not yet missed its shipping deadline. But sources say that the company cannot get its hands on enough reflective color displays to begin shipping the Freestyle 540 any time soon, a rumor which began circulating following the company's lackluster showing at Spring Comdex.

Everex uses the same reflective color display used in Compaq's Aero 2100, and the color version of the popular Nintendo Gameboy, made by Sharp Electronics, said David Mentley, a display analyst with Stanford Resources.

Shipments of Nintendo's popular gaming device and Compaq's first palm-size PCs may be creating a shortage of the reflective color LCD. The maker of the screen, Sharp, may be having problems keeping up with demand, analysts speculated. Sharp did not return calls for comment.

"Sharp is really the only one who is making this product," said Mentley. "It's used in the Gameboy, which ships between 5-10 million units for the year," and could be responsible for the shortage. Everex did not return phone calls for comment.

Everex is not the only company to be affected by the problem, analysts say. "Everyone's basically having screen shortages," said Brian Phillips, an analyst with market research firm ARS.

Casio, on the other hand, is in a somewhat strange predicament. Casio's E-100 color palm-size PC is currently being sold by a variety of online retailers, including Gateway's Spotshop, Hardware Street, Onsale, and CDW, all of which list the handheld as out of stock.

But Casio has not yet begun shipping the device, a spokesperson said, and will not do so until the last week of May or first week of June. "We can't control what [retailers] do out there," the spokesperson said, but offered no explanation as to how retailers are currently listing the E-100. "We're shipping to retailers at the end of this month," she asserted.

In fact, many retailers are listing the Casio E-100, and there have been isolated reports of the device shipping to some retailers, ARS' Phillips said: "It's all listed, everybody knows about it, but nobody has it in stock," he said. Again, "the issue is with the screens."

Although Casio and Philips dispute the notion that the handhelds are late, Microsoft concedes that the Wyvern generation has been delayed "by a couple of weeks," according to group product manager Phil Holden.

"We do know that there's very strong demand," for the color palm-size PCs, he said. "I think things are running relatively smooth...This is a couple of weeks delay--I expect broad volume in the next 2-3 weeks," when the Philips and Casio devices begin shipping.

But if these products do not hit stores until mid-summer, planned updates to the operating system and hardware improvements may be pushed back, analysts caution. Microsoft plans for Rapier, a long-term update to the Windows CE operating system for the palm-size platform, have not been changed, Holden said.

"Rapier is a longer term development project," he said. "You should not expect any announcements on Rapier this year. We very much see [these] units and software lasting through the summer and fall--We don't really think it will have an affect."

Even so, these delays may further confuse consumers already unclear on the benefits and features of the stripped-down Windows CE operating system, analysts say. "Retailers are going to have a challenge on their hands differentiating the [various color] devices," Phillips said. "Not to mention how it's differentiated from the Palm."