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Windows CE future seen in Chinese handheld

The first Chinese-made palm-size computer offers a glimpse at future devices, including color displays.

The first Chinese-made palm-size computer includes a color display, while devices coming out in mid-1999 in the United States are expected to offer advanced wireless technology.

Color displays and advanced wireless connections are two technologies that have been conspicuously absent from palm-type handhelds to date.

The Chinese palm-size PC will run on Microsoft's Windows CE 2.11 operating system, a step-up from the Windows CE 2.1 OS that existing devices are based on.

Some Chinese manufacturers will offer the handheld, code-named Orion, with a color screen--the first handheld Windows CE device to sport such a screen. The device will offer email, Web browsing--based on a standard modem hook-up not a wireless connection--and address book features in addition to a Chinese-English dictionary. Pricing information was not immediately available.

The handheld market has been marked by fits and starts, but it appears to finally be coming into its own as a viable platform as the devices become more Internet-centric. In addition to the newest Windows CE handheld with the first color display, 3Com recently announced its Palm VII with wireless connectivity, and an upcoming wireless device is reportedly in the works from Apple, which earlier this year jettisoned its Newton product line.

The latest Palm-size PC is being manufactured for the Chinese market by 10 companies, including Casio, Palmax, Philips, and Hewlett-Packard. Casio, HP, and Legend Group--China's largest computer maker--are expected to introduce devices with color displays, according to Phil Holden, product manager for the Windows CE group at Microsoft.

"It's an element of the 'cool' factor," Holden said. "People are very accepting of color now, and there are a lot of benefits with color in a Web environment."

The technology enabling the color display was developed in the course of optimizing Windows CE handwriting recognition for the Chinese language, Holden said. "Clearly, their language is more graphical. A lot of the hard work we had to do for the Chinese language did enable color."

Color displays can be harder to read outdoors than black and white displays, cautioned Diana Hwang, a mobile computing analyst at International Data Corporation, who nonetheless believes that color displays are a key factor in the success of other Windows CE devices.

"Color makes Windows CE," she said, pointing out that larger PC companion devices based on the platform did not garner interest until color displays arrived.

The next version of the palm-size PC in the U.S., which is expected in mid-1999, will also offer color displays, Holden said, adding that the new handhelds will not be radically different from the existing models. "We're still trying to understand what these products are going to be--there are no major new features per se," he said.

3Com, the established leader in the handheld market, was rumored to be announcing a new slimmer PalmPilot with support for color displays this week at the Worldwide Developer's Conference in Santa Clara, California. Instead, Palm Computing unveiled the wireless-enabled Palm VII, whose hardware is virtually identical to the Palm III, including a black-and-white display.

The next-generation Windows CE handhelds will also offer wireless technology developed by Wireless Knowledge, the recently formed joint venture between Microsoft and Qualcomm, Holden said. The wireless network will initially be accessed using a cell phone, but the connectivity will eventually be built in to palm-size PCs and Jupiter class PC companions.

Apple is working on a handheld consumer product with wireless connectivity, code-named P1, according to an online report. An Apple spokesperson would not confirm the report.