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Windows CE boasts new email features

The software giant unveils more new features of its upcoming Pocket PC operating system as it battles Palm for the handheld market.

Microsoft today unveiled more new features of its upcoming Pocket PC operating system as it looks to loosen Palm's grip on the handheld market.

Rogers Weed, head of Microsoft's mobile device division, announced at the Mobile Insights show in Palm Springs, Calif., that the next version of Windows CE for handheld devices will include new email functionality. The new features--which will allow users to download messages directly from their email provider rather than merely synchronizing to email stored on their PC--will also support file attachments, Microsoft announced.

The new features will be included in Pocket PC, the upcoming update to Microsoft's scaled-down operating system for handhelds. Generally thought to be the underdog to competitor Palm, which held a successful initial public offering last week, Microsoft has lagged in adding new handheld customers in the two years since CE's release. Some see Pocket PC as the software giant's last hope to establish a foothold in the handheld market.

"It's been rather slow going for Microsoft's Windows CE," International Data Corp. (IDC) analyst Bruce Stephen said from the conference yesterday, predicting that if Pocket PC doesn't break through, Microsoft may pull the plug on handheld devices and focus its efforts elsewhere. "If that doesn't make it for Microsoft, that may be it."

Microsoft was upbeat, however, touting the new system as a true Palm-killer. "This pretty much enables the most functional email for a PDA (personal digital assistant) on the market," said Phil Holden, group product manager at Microsoft. "The PalmPilot is so '90s--they need to update their email solution to get into the 20th century."

Despite Microsoft's marketing heft and the leverage of its manufacturer partners, which include major players such as Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard and Casio, the software maker has been hit by a number of setbacks, including the departure of several device manufacturers from the market and customer complaints about the operating system being unwieldy and difficult to use.

Currently, Palm devices account for about 83 percent of all handheld computers sold, according to IDC, while Microsoft has less than 10 percent.

Seemingly impervious to this type of criticism, which it has endured almost since the release of Windows CE, Microsoft has continued to add new features and functionality to the operating system, despite the lackluster reaction from the marketplace.

"We fundamentally believe that people want to do more--not less," marketing product manager Brian Shafer said recently, and the company points to Palm's decision to add color displays and more multimedia functionality as validation of that strategy.

The addition of new email functionality, called Pocket Inbox, will be joined by a simpler interface and more streamlined navigation, added to Holden. "People should expect to see a much more simpler approach, and we feel good about the usability," he said.

In addition, some of the devices will be slightly longer to accommodate larger displays and will run on processors up to 200MHz. "It really makes for a snappy experience," said Holden. "You'll definitely see thinner and more stylish devices. I'd go so far to say that some are pretty sexy--for hardware."