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Windows in the palm of your hand

Microsoft is set to unveil its Windows CE operating system for a new breed of handheld PCs.

LAS VEGAS, Nevada--Microsoft will officially draw the curtain on its Windows CE operating system for handheld devices tonight in Las Vegas, hoping the second time's a charm after its Winpad project went bust two years ago.

Windows CE and its Windows 95-like user interface will initially run on HPCs, handheld PCs for Windows 95 users who want a mobile counterpart that can synchronize data with Windows desktop applications, send and receive email, or be configured for specific applications in vertical markets such as medical care, inventory tracking, or utility field work.

"The handheld PC is first and foremost a Windows companion," said Jon Magill, director of marketing of Microsoft's consumer appliance group.

Casio, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi, LG Electronics, NEC, and Philips will show off new HPCs tonight priced under $500 that will conform to the following minimum hardware requirements: clamshell design, a 480-by-480 pixel touchscreen activated with a finger or a stylus, an infrared port for wireless data exchange, a serial port for file transfer and synchronization with a PC, a speaker, the ability to play .wav files, 2MB RAM, 4MB upgradeable ROM, and one PCMCIA slot, according to Magill.

Machines sold in the United States must be keyboard-based, Magill said, citing the negative public perception toward handwriting recognition that was fostered in no small part by the Doonesbury comic strip's satire of the original Apple Newton. However, handwriting recognition technology--especially in the Newton--has vastly improved, and Magill conceded that Microsoft could include it in later versions. Microsoft currently produces a handwriting-based tablet for Asia.

Included with Windows CE is the following software: a PIM applet trio of calendar, contact manager, and task scheduler; "pocket" versions of Word and Excel; an email client; a clock; and a calculator. By a serial cable, CE's PIM apps will instantly synchronize with Microsoft's own Schedule +, or Outlook when Office 97 ships. They will also synchronize with other leading desktop PIM applications through translator software.

For Web browsing, Pocket Internet Explorer will come bundled on a CD-ROM and can be installed by a PC.

Windows CE will support a variety of email options over TCP/IP networks, either wireless or by a PCMCIA modem. Magill warns that PCMCIA modems will place a heavy drain on battery power, giving the handhelds only hours of life instead of the two to three weeks the company promises with normal usage.

No Java support for Windows CE has been announced. ActiveX will be reserved for extending the operating system as Microsoft moves to make it a platform for other consumer electronic devices, such as digital video disc players.