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Intel catching up on CE

Microsoft and Intel announce plans for the Windows CE operating system to run on low-power x86 and Pentium-class processors.

Microsoft (MSFT) and Intel (INTC) today announced plans for the Windows CE operating system to run on low-power x86 and Pentium-class processors, but the results won't be forthcoming until the second half of 1997.

The move, reported by CNET last week, brings to five the number of Windows CE architectures. The first Intel chip to support Windows CE will be the Ultra Low Power 486 SX, also known as Hummingbird, and already deployed in non-CE handhelds in Japan.

Intel is also developing a low-power Pentium for embedded systems such as automobile navigation devices, said Ganesh Moorthy, general manager of Intel's appliance and computing division. Hummingbird-based CE devices should be available in the second half of 1997, but Pentium-class support will take longer, Moorthy said.

CE-based handheld devices unveiled so far have for the most part opted for Hitachi's SH-3 processor. But if Intel can persuade makers of PDAs and other specialty devices to use Hummingbird in its present or future iterations, the landscape could change quickly.

"The 486 brings a universe of people who understand how to work with it from a hardware and software standpoint," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at technology research firm Dataquest. "That advantage is enormous."

But others have questioned Intel's commitment to the handheld platform, pointing to the company's conspicuous absence from the CE launch hoopla at Comdex. Intel executives say they delayed the announcement because the Windows CE launch was tailored more for so-called handheld PC devices, while Intel wants to focus on the broader range of devices, such as set-top boxes and mobile phones.

Another issue is profit margins. The Hummingbird costs around $20 and won't necessarily provide Intel the profit margin they're accustomed to in the desktop market. (Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.)

The question remains how much resources Intel is willing to pour into a niche market that even Microsoft couldn't crack the first time around with its failed Winpad project.

Dataquest's Brookwood feels that Intel can afford to take its time. "The CE market is not going to take off like a forest fire," he said. "If I was Intel I would say, 'I can get into this whenever I want.'"