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NEC bets there's life yet in Windows CE

The company expands its line of Windows CE mini-notebooks, breathing a little new life into Microsoft's ailing portable operating system.

NEC today expanded its line of Windows CE mini-notebooks, breathing a little new life into Microsoft's ailing portable operating system.

NEC today announced the MobilePro 880, a notebook-sized device that runs Windows CE. NEC is one of the last manufacturers left in the "clamshell" handheld computer, or HPC, business, which has largely fizzled as manufacturers like IBM have exited from the market.

The new MobilePro 880 features a larger display than previous models, weighs under 2.6 pounds and is 1 inch thick. The device can be deployed as a "thin client," which means that it can be attached as a terminal and used to run server-based applications. The MobilePro 880 is priced at $949.

The HPC was announced with great fanfare several years ago by Microsoft and its manufacturing partners, which include NEC and Sharp, along with PC makers like Compaq. The clamshell devices were touted as email machines with more portability than full-fledged notebook computers and additional non-PC benefits such as instant-on and longer battery life.

But the chances for mainstream success were doomed by high prices and problems with Microsoft's Windows CE software, which has been criticized for difficult synchronization with desktop data and inadequate applications. The devices also came in two different sizes, one a rectangular clamshell device the size of an ?clair and the other resembling a mini-notebook. The dichotomy created confusion among buyers.

Windows CE has about 10 percent of the market for handheld computers, according to International Data Corp.

"The HPC Pro market is stabilizing between a few key manufacturers. With the MobilePro 880, NEC Computers is focusing on vertical markets, such as education, pharmaceuticals and the health care industry," Duane Cowgill, senior product manager for MobilePro, said in a statement.

Although Microsoft is set to release its third update to its Windows CE software for palm-size devices, called Pocket PC, the company has not announced an update to the software for devices like the MobilePro, leading analysts to question the company's commitment to the products.

Microsoft's repositioning of the devices as products targeted at a narrow segment of a specific corporate market has added further speculation. The company has focused much of its Windows CE resources on the Pocket PC, while manufacturers like Compaq have relegated their HPCs to the non-retail thin-client business side.