A new version of Microsoft's operating system for handheld computers expected this quarter should give users an improved graphical interface and easier access to the Internet and electronic-mail attachments. But some early testers and analysts said Version 2.0 of Windows CE falls short of its potential.
Windows CE 2.0, a "lite" version of Windows 95, will run on handheld PCs, or personal digital assistants, from a group of vendors that includes Philips Mobile Computing, Compaq, NEC and Casio.
New devices running CE 2.0, which weigh about 13 ounces and have between 10 and 15 hours of battery life, are expected to be faster and more powerful. Some will have larger color screens than handhelds made for the first version of CE.
Although analysts say palmtops that use Windows CE 2.0 will have improved features, the systems will fall short of PalmPilot when it comes to information management. PalmPilot, from US Robotics, is an electronic organiser that runs on a proprietary operating system.
Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at GartnerGroup, says Windows CE palmtop devices are too small to handle the Windows interface, which makes tasks such as retrieving addresses or appointment dates cumbersome for users.
"Microsoft needs to break the need to make everything look like Windows," Gartenberg says. Using Windows, users need to tap five or six fields to schedule an appointment, while PalmPilot lets users enter a time and appointment date immediately, he says. Ideally, Microsoft should let users hide the start menu and move more quickly among multiple applications, he says.
Microsoft hasn't yet announced Windows CE 2.0, but observers say it is expected by the end of the month.
Analysts say the new machines will lack first-generation kinks. For example, users will be able to read attachments to Microsoft Word documents received as email. With new print drivers in Windows CE 2.0,
users will be able to print documents. The systems also will support Ethernet connections and improved Internet access.
Bob Borchers, research manager at Nike in Beaverton, Oregon, is testing Hewlett-Packard's HP200LX with Windows CE 2.0, which features versions of Microsoft's Word and Excel that users can operate with a combination of keyboard and pen controls. Borchers said the biggest problem of handhelds isn't the hardware, but integrating Windows CE with his company's Banyan Systems-based network and using it for email.
Hoechst Marion Roussel, a Kansas City-based pharmaceutical company, is testing Windows CE 2.0 on Velo 1, a Philips Mobile Computing Group handheld.
In January, the company plans to roll out 1,700 handhelds to sales representatives who will use them to report on sales calls and to capture doctors' signatures at medical offices, hospitals and clinics. Now, the Hoechst sales staff downloads signatures each night on an IBM ThinkPad and electronically transfers the information to the company's Oracle database.
Kevin Greenlee, an applications development manager at Hoechst, said the sales force will be able to use new CE 2.0 handhelds for PowerPoint sales presentations by connecting them to a projector or monitor. The sales force also uses Velo for retrieving email through connections to a Microsoft Exchange 5.0 server.
Although there is no shortage of vendors that would like to ride Microsoft's coattails into the field, the handheld market already has established players.
David Vance, a patent agent at DuPont Merck in Wilmington, Delaware, said he uses a Psion UK PLC 3A handheld that runs a proprietary operating system to track his appointments and business contacts.
For others in the department, the handhelds stay in the drawer, he says. "I just think these people would rather write on their notebook than on their handheld."
Handheld prices are between US$500 and $700 but are expected to drop in the coming months, said Diana Hwang, an analyst at IDC. Gartenberg said at least 4Mb to 8Mb of memory are needed to use a handheld effectively.