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Windows CE names to be simplified

What's in a name? Customer confusion is what, Microsoft learns as it reevaluates its many names for its embedded operating system.

Microsoft is simplifying the naming of the different flavors of its Windows CE operating system in an attempt to alleviate consumer confusion, the company said yesterday.

Microsoft's embedded operating system for non-desktop devices is designed to run a variety of devices--and each device runs its own version of the OS. This flexibility may confuse consumers used to one consistent platform from Microsoft.

In the handheld market alone, Microsoft offers three different versions of Windows CE. Windows CE 2.0 runs on handheld devices from Hewlett-Packard and Sharp, Windows CE 2.01 runs the palm-size PCs, and Windows CE 2.11, or the Handheld PC Professional Edition, is the OS for the latest round of "Jupiter"-class devices with larger displays and keyboards.

"People look at one HPC, and then look at another one with a different version of the operating system, and don't know what the difference is," said Bob Preston, an analyst with ARS. "At the retail level, a lot of the sales people don't know the answer."

Windows CE devices, in all their various flavors, have had a rocky start. Going up against the hugely popular and more entrenched PalmPilot from 3Com--which uses its own operating system--palm-size PCs have yet to make much of a major dent in the palm-top market. Additionally, the market for the larger and pricier handheld PCs is still emerging, analysts say.

Microsoft and its manufacturing partners concede that the different version numbers may have caused consumer confusion.

"I think we have done ourselves a disservice in terms of the way we've communicated to the market," said Roger Gulrajani, group product manager for Windows CE marketing. "Our numbering scheme could be confusing--we need to be smarter in how we approach it."

Microsoft will continue to offer more product-oriented names as future versions of Windows CE rollout, he said.

"I think you'll see we'll talk more about a device category," he said, referring to the recent arrival of the HPC Pro edition. "We'll try to reconcile some of the numbering discrepancies. The last thing we want to do is cause confusion."

NEC and LG Electronics both announced upgrades this week, letting their customers update their devices to the Handheld PC Professional Edition, the latest version of the platform.

Both vendors insist that the programs were implemented to offer existing customers more choices, and that any marketing benefit is merely a by-product.

"The biggest reason [we offered the upgrades]is to protect the investment of our customers, so they can upgrade to the latest version," said an NEC spokesperson. "But I agree that there is some confusion because they had different versions of Windows CE. It's better streamlined now from a naming scheme."

LG Electronics' Greg Ryan, marketing manager, concurred. "I guess you could say it is confusing, but you could argue that there is confusion with anything in the computer industry."

The naming conundrum has not affected sales in the emerging market yet, Gulrajani says. "This market is still in its early stages--there are only 3 million customers who use handheld devices today. This is the PC industry in 1979," he said, noting that most of today's handheld device customers understand the logic behind the version numbers.

"But as these devices move more into the consumer market place, this could be a barrier."