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Microsoft revs handheld OS, again

The company announces the latest changes to the Windows CE operating system and handheld makers unveil new bells and whistles.

Microsoft announced the latest version of the Windows CE operating system for palm-size PCs today, including color displays for the platform for the first time, and more importantly, increasing support for the software.

Microsoft announced the new OS as both current and new hardware manufacturers unveiled more bells and whistles designed to undercut the dominance of the PalmPilot.

Since their debut last year, palm-size PCs have struggled to gain market share despite a revision of the hardware and two new versions of the operating system. Users complain that prices are prohibitively high for the devices and that the Windows CE operating system depends too much on a desktop Windows paradigm that does not adapt well to handhelds.

Everex's Freestyle 540

Still, supporters believe that with the latest tweaks, the palm-size PCs may finally present a credible threat to PalmPilot, with its installed base of more than two million users. Palm is rumored to be developing its own color device for release later this year.

The new version of Windows CE focuses mainly on enabling new hardware functionality. In addition to the new color displays, the devices will also offer lithium-ion batteries, which offer up to 10 hours of battery life.

As previously reported Compaq will announce its first entry into the PDA market with the Aero 2100, a color device with 10 hour battery.

"We view these ultra-mobile clients as 'must-have' extensions to the network and PC," said J. Tempesta, vice president with Compaq, in a statement. Compaq said it wants to implement an "aggressive" mobile product strategy that includes handheld devices.

The Aero 2100 will reportedly include 8MB of memory, 4 customizable launch buttons, left-hand scroll bar and voice recording with integrated microphone and speaker.

Hewlett-Packard announced its Journada 420 palm-size PC today. HP currently offers the Journada 820, a sub-notebook Windows CE device. The Journada 420 is the PC maker's first foray into the Windows-based PDA world.

The new Journada 420 will offer a color display, a configurable start button, and transparent flip-top cover, for an estimated retail price of $519. The HP device will also support Motorola's pager card when available, which will enable wireless information services and paging, according to the company. Palm is coming out with its own wireless device, the Palm VII, later this year.

Among existing manufacturers, Philips today announced it is expanding its popular Nino line to support the changes to the operating system. Philips' newest Nino will also include a color display and is expected to cost around $400. Meanwhile, the company's handheld Windows CE device has been less well received. Development of the Velo appears to be in limbo as sources report the team developing the product have either left the company or been reassigned to other parts of Philips.

Casio will offer a color Cassiopeia in the second quarter. The company said the E-100 will sport a 131-MHz NEC processor, 16MB of memory and active matrix color screen for viewing movies, among other applications. No pricing was announced.

Everex is preparing to launch its Freestyle 540, a color palm-size PC with 10-hourlithium ion battery, four application-launching buttons, and dual-sided dials to navigate the operating system. The Freestyle 540 is expected to cost around $450.

It is unclear at this point what options are available for current palm-size PC owners interested in upgrading to the new version of the platform. Because Windows CE is an embedded operating system located on a ROM (read-only memory) chip, users must physically swap out the memory chip to upgrade the device. The accessibility of the ROM chip varies from device to device, an issue which has caused confusion in the past.

Manufacturers are not anticipating much demand for upgrade ROMs, according to one vendor, because the changes to the operating system mainly enable new hardware features. Even with an upgrade, an older device will still not offer color, or longer battery life.