Microsoft introduces version 2.0 of its Windows CE operating system later this month - and with a critical mass of hardware vendors giving it a second look, it may yet find the foothold for which it's been struggling.
Because the beefed up version of this OS for small devices supports key technologies such as x86 processors and 24-bit color, users can expect to see a greater diversity of handheld PCs and so-called subnotebooks being rolled out over the coming months from a wider range of suppliers, officials at leading hardware makers say.
There are still many believers in the market potential of such machines, in spite of what some in the industry describe as dismal sales of the first-generation of handheld PCs (HPCs) based on Windows CE 1.0.
"Windows CE has two main attractions: The familiar Windows interface and built-in synchronisation with desktop PCs," says Brian Chong, director of the portable PC business unit at Taiwan's Acer Inc.
Among the wide range of vendors taking a much closer look at release 2 of Windows CE are many from Japan and Taiwan, who were conspicuously absent among the makers of the first-generation devices. The list includes both large system vendors such as Fujitsu and Acer, as well as a number of Taiwanese portable PC makers, including First International Computer and Twinhead.
"We hope to have a prototype of our first Windows CE handheld ready for Comdex," says a spokesman at First International, referring to the November trade show in Las Vegas.
Also included in the group of new Windows CE backers is surprise entrant Sharp, which by year-end will begin selling a Windows CE machine in the US, according to Atsushi Asada, senior vice president at the Osaka-based company.
To date Sharp's proprietary Zaurus handheld, also known as a personal digital assistant (PDA), has been one of the most ardent competitors with the Windows CE platform. Asada would not disclose what processor Sharp's machine will use but several vendors said they are readying units based on Intel's ultra low power 486SX and compatible chips from Advanced Micro Devices.
Fujitsu for example expects by the second quarter of next year to roll out an Intel-based Windows CE handheld that will resemble a current DOS device it sells only in Japan, according to an official.
"We are thinking very seriously about implementing Windows CE in a terminal and probably it will be an extension of the Intertop," he says. The Intertop is an A5 sized portable sporting a screen that can be opened 360 degrees, creating a tablet for pen input.
The Fujitsu official says that the future Windows CE device specifications from Microsoft are "very flexible," marking a big change since the OS was officially launched at last November's Comdex show. Since that launch, the Windows CE movement has been stifled by a lack of diversity.
"The first Windows CE HPCs have not exactly taken over the world," says Everett Roach, vice president, Asia-Pacific, at Cyrix.
From the day the first units where shown, some analysts criticised the similarity of the products, pointing to a very rigid set of specifications Microsoft laid out to ensure the devices all respected certain weight, battery life and price requirements. But following the release of version 2.0.
In addition to offering support for x86 CPUs and color, the new release will also add a Java virtual machine, LAN connections, printing, Microsoft Foundation Classes subset for C++, Active X and Visual Basic Scripting, according to sources familiar with the specification.
Proponents of x86 technology such as Cyrix's Roach believe that support for the infrastructure currently dominating the PC industry will be an important asset when it comes to attracting more entrenched PC makers to support the Windows CE platform.
"I already have at least one customer here in Taiwan who wants to build a MediaGX-based device running Windows CE," says Roach, referring to the company's low-cost Pentium-class processor family.
Other sources in Taiwan also said that several vendors are readying Windows CE devices in form factors nearer to Toshiba's two-pound Libretto "mini-notebook" than today's HPCs.
"We believe that it is possible to bring to market a Libretto-sized Windows CE portable with a color screen but no hard drive for around US$1,000 - which would be half the price of the Libretto," says one official at a Taiwan-based portables maker.
Although vastly experienced in building x86-based PC devices, not all PC makers believe that the x86 processors will be able to compete with lower-priced RISC processor similar to those used in today's HPCs. RISC is still a lot cheaper and more efficient for portables in this category than x86, says one official at a large Taiwanese systems maker.
The 2.0 version of Windows CE is also expected to become a key part of the Windows Terminal concept that Microsoft now is readying as its main thrust to thwart the network computer and other competitive thin-clients.
In the future, users can also expect to see more devices - ranging from smart phones to WebTV - that will run the Windows CE operating system, although the user interface might not always be the familiar Windows-as-we-know-it standard in today's PCs and HPCs, sources close to Microsoft say.
Though Microsoft developers hope that Window CE 2.0 will go a long way to support all this new functionality, "that doesn't mean all of these items will be included, and not every feature will appear in a particular device," says Jim Floyd, product manager, handheld PCs at Microsoft.
More information about Windows CE can be found on Microsoft's World Wide Web site at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsce/.