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Microsoft on Monday unveiled the latest version of its handheld operating system, as well as a new brand name for its software for mobile devices.The new Windows Mobile 2003 software for Pocket PC features built-in support for Wi-Fi <DEFINE:WI_FI> and Bluetooth , improved e-mail synchronization, a new imaging application and better video playback. The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant said devices using the software would be available soon from Dell, Hewlett-Packard, ViewSonic and Toshiba, and that Gateway and JVC would launch their first Pocket PCs later this year.The new umbrella brand -- Windows Mobile -- encompasses Pocket PCs and Smartphones. Microsoft will continue to use the Pocket PC and Smartphone monikers to describe the actual devices, but will now refer to the operating systems for both as Windows Mobile software.
"The goal was to develop a clearly identifiable brand that would speak to the familiar software experience that people would have on these devices," said Ed Suwanjindar, lead marketing manager for the company's mobile devices division. "Overwhelmingly the Windows brand really resonated with them."
Suwanjindar said that in updating the Pocket PC operating system, Microsoft focused on three key technology trends: wireless, e-mail synchronization and multimedia.
Recognizing the proliferation of hotspots and the increasing number of Wi-Fi- and Bluetooth-enabled devices, Microsoft leveraged the underlying Windows CE .NET 4.2 operating system to allow easier access to wireless local area networks (WLAN) and personal area networks (PAN). Devices using the new OS will be able to automatically detect and easily connect to Wi-Fi networks.
Suwanjindar said Microsoft was aiming to duplicate the "zero-configuration" WLAN approach of Windows XP. "We have the devices that support Wi-Fi and the networks are there," he said. "The software experience was one area we knew we could improve."
In addition, Microsoft has teamed up with T-Mobile HotSpots, Boingo Wireless and Wayportin an effort to kickstart the use of the devices on Wi-Fi networks. The wireless service providers will offer a 30-day free trial to anyone who purchases a new Windows Mobile-based Pocket PC in the next two months.
To improve the e-mail experience on the Pocket PC, Microsoft added support for over-the-air synchronization of e-mail, calendar and contacts with the upcoming Exchange Server 2003 software. Suwanjindar said that users can choose to have e-mail pushed to the device as messages are received or at scheduled times.
On the media front, Microsoft has added a new application called Pictures that allows users to store, edit and display digital photos on their devices, and a new version of Windows Media Player that supports higher quality video.
The new operating system supports Microsoft's .NET Compact Framework, which Suwanjindar said will allow developers to target Pocket PCs with the same tools they use to build applications for Windows. A developer's kit for the new OS is available at www.microsoft.com/mobile/developer.
Microsoft said that existing Pocket PC makers Dell, Toshiba, Viewsonic and HP, as well as new partner JVC would announce support for the new operating system on Monday. Gateway confirmedlast week that it would enter the PDA market with a mid-range device using the new Windows Mobile software later this summer.
Dell, which launched its first PDA in November, said that the new OS would be available on its Axim X5 device beginning Monday. The company said it would also offer a $29 upgrade to existing Axim owners.
Also on Monday, ViewSonicplanned to announce the V36, which features a built-in 300K digital camera and a 300MHz Intel Xscale processor for $329. The device is expected to be available in August, along with ViewSonic's new 802.11b SDIO (secure digital input/output) card. The $129 card will add wireless functionality to the V36.
The handheld market has declinedover the last couple of quarters, but Microsoft continues to make inroads in its quest to wrest control of the market from rival Palm. Windows CE-based devices accounted for 36 percent of the market in the first quarter of 2003, and shipments increased by more than 330,000 from the previous year, according to research firm Gartner. CE actually surpassed Palm on an end-user revenue basis for the first time with 52 percent of the market, compared with 37 percent for Palm OS licensees.
Still, the battle is far from over, said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with Jupiter Research (ed. note: Jupiter Research is owned by the parent company of this publication). "Microsoft is not simply going to take over the market. It's still in the early stages -- we're going to see a competitive race."
Gartenberg called the software upgrade "evolutionary, not revolutionary." Microsoft is expected to unveil a major overhaul of the operating system, code-named Magneto, next year. Meanwhile, Palm has started to talk up the next version of its operating system, called Sahara, which will emphasize security, among other things.
"Palm OS 6 looks more than capable of going up against Microsoft's offering," Gartenberg said. "It will be interesting to see what Microsoft has to counter that in its next iteration of the operating system."
The real battleground, though, is in the so-called connected devices arena, he said, as interest in handhelds shifts to smartphones and PDAs with built-in wireless capabilities. "It's a market that's not yet dominated."
Microsoft trails Symbian, the London-based company whose mobile phone OS is backed by most of the major cell phone makers, in the smartphone market. Palm's plans to acquireHandspring, which makes the Treo smartphone, makes it, too, a player.
Editor's note: Vikki Lipset is managing editor for AllNetDevices.com, a Jupitermedia site.