Dubbed ActiveSync 3.0, the new software improves the speeds at which data transfers between a computer and a device that runs with the Windows CE system. ActiveSync 3.0 is also expected to be much easier to install than its predecessors.
But the release, though touted as an advancement, is more like a repair. Both the version of Windows CE for handhelds with color screens, which began to hit shelves in June, and the version of CE that comes with mini-notebook-sized devices that debuted last October use an older version of ActiveSync that was relatively slow and difficult to install.
"We did release [previous Windows CE versions] with the same synchronization software that was nine months old," acknowledged Brian Shafer, marketing manager for the Windows CE group at Microsoft. "There were certain situations where it was more difficult to install and use than they [users] would have liked.
"ActiveSync wasn't ready, and the new devices were," he said in explaining why the software is coming out now.
The problem is the latest obstacle faced by Windows CE, a lighter version of Microsoft's PC operating system designed for markets such as TV set-top boxes, game consoles, and other non-computer devices. But Microsoft has not been able to repeat its desktop success in these arenas: Handheld devices using Windows CE lag far behind rivals from Palm Computing, for example, and features like color displays have not helped sales much, if at all.
Microsoft released ActiveSync 3.0 this week, rather than wait to include the update in the next official version of the operating system, Shafer said. "We could have held it for future versions. In fact, what we've done is accelerated the release of ActiveSync, brought it out early, in effect."
Previously, Windows CE devices transferred information to the desktop computer via the dial-up networking connection, which is also used to connect to the Internet.
Installing the synchronization software was a headache for many, however,
ActiveSync 3.0 allows users to bypass dial-up networking and connect the device at speeds from 19.2 kbps to 115 kbps, according to Microsoft. The handheld device will detect and adjust to the highest possible connection speed.
"There's a big push to make it easier and faster" to install, Shafer said. "This completely replaces all of the components of our old synchronization software."
Microsoft has been aware of the problems with the old software for a year and a half, according to Shafer, and shipped the latest generation of software for the palm-size and handheld PCs, code-named Wyvern, and Jupiter, respectively, despite the problems. The Wyvern generation of palm-size PCs included support for color displays, which Microsoft has identified as one of the platform's key selling points.
The color displays used in the palm-size devices have been in extremely short supply over the last six months, leading to shipping delays and back orders. Despite the shortage, the color CE devices haven't sold well, according to retailers, and are already being discounted. The Jupiter devices, which resemble scaled-down notebooks, have been shipping since last October.
"We had to make a decision there. Customers were interested in color displays, more storage capacity, and stereo audio," Shafer said, explaining why Microsoft released the Wyvern generation of software, despite knowledge of the synchronization problems.
Over the last year, consumers and retailers have complained about problematic synchronization of Windows CE-based devices with desktop PCs, exactly the issue ActiveSync 3.0 is targeted to fix. Microsoft hopes to jump-start sales with the improved version.
"I don't know if sales have been hurt," Shafer said. "But hopefully we'll see a sales bump."
Such PC companions, also known as Jupiter-class devices, lost market share to other devices in 1998, according to International Data Corporation, dropping from 17.8 percent of the market in 1997 to 17.3 percent in 1998. In the palm-size space, Palm Computing's devices have continued to dominate over Microsoft's palm-size PCs, accounting for over 70 percent of the market.
ActiveSync 3.0 "simplifies what I think is one of the major problems Microsoft has had in selling Windows CE," said Will Nelson, editor of industry newsletter PDADash, last June.
Owners of palm-size and handheld PCs can upgrade their desktop computers at the Microsoft Web site, or by ordering a CD-ROM with the synchronization upgrade.