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-- by Jim Forbes
It may still account for only a fraction of the overall Windows market, but Windows CE is clearly the OS of the moment. If Microsoft has its way, subsequent versions of WinCE will not only launch a new generation of pocket computers, but will show up in everything from Internet appliances to the navigation systems in luxury cars.
Several new classes of Windows CE software and hardware are in initial development. One group of products updates the current Windows CE hardware design to accommodate new features. Expected to ship late this year, the software component of CE 2.0 will allow pocket computer makers to design machines with 640x240-pixel displays, which are currently supported only on the HP LX 300 line. It will also be capable of driving 640x480-pixel external displays. Version 2.0 of CE software will make it easier to print documents as well.
Meanwhile, some hardware makers are expected to use WinCE 2.0 to develop an altogether new form factor. For example, NEC and Toshiba are working on machines that are up to 20 percent larger than current pocket computers and support larger screens; in essence, they resemble subcompact notebooks. They can be expanded with up to 32MB of system memory, compared to 4MB on current devices, although they will still lack hard disks. At least one manufacturer claims it will be able to deliver a version of this machine equipped with a dual-scan passive-matrix screen for under $1,000.
Microsoft is optimizing some CE 2.0 features specifically for Office 97 and Windows 98, or whatever the next version of Windows 95 is called. A new feature will make it possible to automatically synchronize the PIM on a CE-based hand-held with Outlook and Schedule+. CE 2.0 is also expected to support some of the functionality in Microsoft's ActiveX and DirectX technologies and parts of Component Object Model software.
A new twist in Microsoft's CE strategy is the development of a hardware and software reference specification for an inexpensive, intelligent, pocket computer/pager. This device is expected to go head to head against the U.S. Robotics Palm Pilot. Hardware developers evaluating this platform say products built to this specification probably won't appear until at least the second quarter of 1998.
Plans for forthcoming versions of CE incorporate radically new technology. For example, voice recognition is at the heart of another CE product designed for auto manufacturers. Now being developed under a variety of code-names, including Apollo, these products will allow luxury car drivers to query their CE-equipped cars to obtain directional, system status and other information.