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Microsoft touts Windows CE enhancements

The company kicks off its Windows CE Developers Conference with a flurry of minor announcements, but questions linger about the progress of upcoming versions of the operating system.

    Microsoft today kicked off its Windows CE Developers Conference with a flurry of minor announcements, but questions linger about the progress of upcoming versions of the operating system.

    The Denver conference marks the company's progress in several key areas. Microsoft has grown its developer base, expanded its list of manufacturing partners, and taken some strides in making good on its promises to bolster the capabilities of Windows CE, a stripped-down operating system aimed at handhelds, TV set-top boxes, and other devices.

    However, the company will be late delivering on some of those promises; additionally, there will be no announcements or official demonstrations of Rapier, the code-name for the much-anticipated sequel to the existing version of Windows CE for palm-size PCs, leading some observers to question Microsoft's progress in that space.

    The company has high hopes for See related story: The new world order Windows CE in this and other markets. In particular, Microsoft is making a major move in the TV set-top box segment, recently investing $5 billion in AT&T to get the phone giant to use Windows CE in some of its set-tops.

    The week started with good news for the operating system: According to its European retail partners, Windows CE devices are beginning to overtake traditional market leader Palm Computing in Europe, Microsoft announced. In some markets, such as France, Windows CE devices are outselling Palm three to one, according to Microsoft.

    Attempting to build on the momentum, Microsoft today made a series of announcements appealing to the conference's audience of software and hardware developers, including the addition of ActiveSync 3.0, which significantly improves the way that Windows CE devices communicate with the desktop PC.

    For users, synchronizing information between the handheld and the PC has been an Achilles heel for the platform. In the past, information on palm-size PCs and other, larger Windows CE-based handhelds was synchronized to the PC via the dial-up networking system (which is also used to connect to the Internet), even when in a docking cradle. This method proved problematic: The connection speed was set to the slowest possible speed by default, which resulted in unwieldy transfer of information.

    ActiveSync is no longer routed through the dial-up Internet connection, and now dynamically adjusts its connection speed. "It simplifies what I think is one of the major problems Microsoft has had in selling Windows CE," said Will Nelson, editor of PDADash, an industry Web site, who is attending the Windows CE conference.

    Microsoft is also trying to appease developers by making application development easier. Of interest is the Common Executable Format announced today, which allows developers to create programs that have "cross-processor portability," according to Microsoft. In essence, the new format enables developers to create applications which work on more than one processor.

    Despite its touted advantages as a common development platform, developers previously had to recompile their applications for each of the several different processors used by the different handheld device vendors, costing them time and money in the development process.

    What's next for CE
    Microsoft said it is demonstrating "preview bits" of Cedar, the next generation of the operating system which is expected to be delivered to beta testers by the end of this year. Cedar will include "hard" real-time capabilities, which means the operating system can be used in systems that respond to commands instantaneously, like anti-lock brakes in cars and heart monitors in hospitals.

    These hard real-time preview bits were highlighted in a keynote speech by Harel Kodesh, vice president of productivity appliances at Microsoft. Kodesh also discussed improvements in audio and multimedia applications for the palm-size PC.

    "'Windows CE offers hardware and software developers, integrators, and solution providers support for more diverse information appliances than any competitive operating system," he said, in his address.

    At last year's developer's conference, Microsoft announced that these capabilities would be delivered by the second quarter of this year. Cedar does not yet have a release date, but will not be introduced until next year, according to a Microsoft spokesperson.

    Rapier, which is a specialized offshoot of Cedar for palm-size computers, is also generating interest because of its absence from this year's show. Rapier is rumored to include support for real-time wireless connectivity and a totally revamped user interface, but is a "longer term" project than Cedar, and sources said it will not even be tested until sometime next year, at the earliest.

    Some have questioned whether Microsoft is deliberately delaying the rollout of Rapier because of delays in bringing the current generation of color palm-size PCs, code-named Wyvern, to stores. Wyvern devices have been delayed by shortages of the color displays which differentiate the PDAs from their predecessors.

    Still, some third-party companies will be demonstrating applications which enable wireless Internet access on the palm-size and H/PC devices, including one from InfoBeam which works with a two-way wireless pager to offer Internet content to Windows CE devices. Like the similar service offered on Palm Computing's Palm VII wireless device, the InfoBeam service offers stock quotes, weather reports and package tracking updates.

    Compaq shows off new device
    Compaq is one of the only major manufacturers to use the show as an opportunity to reveal new hardware. The company introduced the Aero 8000 H/PC Pro. The device, which resembles a scaled-down notebook, weighs 2.9 pounds.

    The Aero 8000 is one of the first Windows CE devices to include support for smart cards, and runs on a 128MHz processor with 64MB of memory. The device will be in stores this summer with an estimated retail price of $949.

    Compaq's entry into the market for the larger Windows CE devices further validates the market for Windows CE mini-notebooks, a market which IBM recently entered. Hewlett-Packard is also offering a Windows CE-based mini-notebook called the Jornada.

    Sun gets in on the action
    Even Microsoft archrival Sun Microsystems got in on the action at the conference, announcing a developer version of PersonalJava for Windows CE. PersonalJava is similar to the full-fledged version of the "write once, run anywhere" technology, but it has several features stripped out to reduce memory and processor requirements.

    Several companies involved with handheld devices have licensed PersonalJava, including Geoworks, Lucent, QNX, and Wind River Systems, Sun said.

    News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.