Comdex: the Second Coming of Windows CE

At next week's Comdex exposition Microsoft will show that it hopes to expand the market for Windows CE with a host of second-generation devices based on the latest version of the operating system. A range of hardware vendors next week will showcase portable devices based on Windows CE 2.0, offering a broader range of choices than they did with the first-generation devices rolled out at Comdex last year. The CE 2.0 devices will offer new form factors, color displays and better network connectivity.

At next week's Comdex exposition Microsoft will show that it hopes to expand the market for Windows CE with a host of second-generation devices based on the latest version of the operating system.

A range of hardware vendors next week will showcase portable devices based on Windows CE 2.0, offering a broader range of choices than they did with the first-generation devices rolled out at Comdex last year. The CE 2.0 devices will offer new form factors, color displays and better network connectivity.

Although the CE platform devices on display will be confined to the portables segment, Microsoft by this time next year hopes to have expanded the operating system's reach to living room devices including some that would allow surfing the Internet on television sets, officials said. The company is also reportedly working with Sega Enterprises Ltd. on a CE-based game machine.

While two vendors, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Philips Mobile Computing Group (a U.S. arm of Netherlands-based Philips Electronics NV), yesterday rushed out new and slightly souped-up versions of their handheld PC (HPC) devices featuring CE 2.0, several others are waiting in the wings to unveil more innovative products.

Officials at Japanese electronics giant NEC Corp., for example, today confirmed that the company next week will unveil a CE device featuring a larger form factor. The new Mobile Pro device will be positioned between the existing HPC devices and the phalanx of new mininotebooks running Windows 95 that also will be featured at the show. [See, "Vendors Line Up to Support Windows CE 2.0," Oct. 14. ]

NEC's new Mobile Pro unit will fall into the category that Microsoft has code-named Jupiter and will feature larger color displays as well as more user-friendly keyboard sizes than the existing HPC form factor. The Jupiter devices will be priced in the range of US$700 to $1,000, sources said.

Several other major players, including Casio Computer Co., Hitachi Ltd. and Sharp Corp., are also expected to showcase new CE mobile devices.

For companies such as NEC and Hitachi, growing the Windows CE market is crucial: Both companies also supply the processors behind most of the CE devices on the market.

NEC officials see the Windows CE platform as a key, near-term opportunity to generate higher sales for its VR series of 64-bit RISC processors, a senior official said in an interview with the IDG News Service last week. Also used in Nintendo game machines, the low-voltage VR series is competing head to head with Hitachi's SH family of RISC chips, the other major CE processor line.

"If our company can develop attractive products, it can create a new market" that will help NEC's sales, said Hajime Sasaki, senior executive vice president at NEC. "We need to see the response of people at Comdex."

In what he described as a significant demonstration scheduled for Comdex, Sasaki said NEC will show off some of the results of a relationship reached with San Jose, California-based handheld specialist Vadem. The two companies a year ago entered into a strategic alliance aimed at developing fully integrated system solutions to support OEMs interested in entering the CE market.

NEC, which traditionally has enjoyed a cozy relationship with Microsoft, sees both Java and Windows CE as major opportunities for its VR chips, Sasaki said.

"My feeling is maybe the opportunity for Windows CE might be earlier than that for Java," Sasaki said. "For Java we need to build up the infrastructure," such as network bandwidth and the amount of online content, he said.

In their joint exhibition, NEC and Vadem will also host devices developed by their OEM customers, such as Taiwan's First International Computer Inc. and its U.S.-based Everex Systems Inc. affiliate, officials said.

Among those devices may be several so-called wallet PCs, small devices that are designed to compete with the popular PalmPilot device from 3Com Corp./U.S. Robotics Corp., sources said. Microsoft, however, recently has signaled that it will roll back by a month or two the planned release of the wallet PC design, code-named Gryphon, they added.

The CE shell for the Gryphon devices was originally scheduled to be released to manufacturing by Microsoft this month with devices ready for shipment by the time the Consumer Electronics Show takes place in Las Vegas in January, the sources said.

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