LAS VEGAS - Microsoft Corp. has moved swiftly to develop a new version of its Pocket PC platform that integrates wireless telephony features into its software for handheld computers. The first gadgets based on the new platform, called Wireless Pocket PC, are expected to go on sale from partners including Hewlett-Packard Co. by the middle of the year, Microsoft officials here said.
Adding CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access) and GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) capabilities to the Pocket PC will allow users to make voice calls from their PDAs without the need for add-on hardware. Wireless Pocket PC, which will soon be rebranded with a catchy name, should help Microsoft compete with gadgets such as Handspring Inc.'s popular Treo, a combined cell phone-PDA.
Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect, referred only briefly to the new platform in his keynote speech at the start of the Consumer Electronics Show here Monday. But the company has apparently worked fast to avoid falling too far behind in the emerging market for products that blend telephony functions with a PDA.
"We don't think there's an ideal device that speaks to the needs of all users, so we're placing multiple bets," said Ed Suwanjindar, a product manager for Microsoft's mobility group, in an interview here.
HP will offer a version of its Jornada PDA that uses the telephony features in Wireless Pocket PC, Suwanjindar said. The GSM device, code-named StarFighter, is likely to ship in Europe before the end of the year, he said.
Also in Europe, British Telecommunications PLC's wireless division, MMO2 Plc., will offer a GSM phone manufactured by Taiwan's High Tech Computer Corp. (HTC), the manufacturer of Compaq Computer Corp.'s iPaq. That device will be offered in four European countries by the middle of this year, including Germany and the U.K., and is expected to also go on sale in the U.S. by the end of the year, Suwanjindar said.
AudioVox Corp., meanwhile, plans to offer a Wireless Pocket PC device in the U.S. in the first half of this year called Thera, which will work with the CDMA networks here, he said.
The devices will mostly be branded and sold by telecommunications providers, who are likely to subsidize prices much as they do with cellular phones today. That means end users will end up paying about the same price for a Wireless Pocket PC Wireless device as they do for a standard Pocket PC device, Suwanjindar said.
Microsoft is launching the platform into a highly competitive market and will need to meet its delivery schedule in order to avoid falling too far behind, said Tim Bajarin, president of research company Creative Strategies Inc. "Unless Microsoft can get these products out quickly, Handspring will have a long advantage in terms of time to market," he said.
Wireless Pocket PC includes all the capabilities on a standard Pocket PC PDA, but adds hardware for connecting to cellular networks and software for dialing numbers and compiling call logs, as well as for sending text messages using SMS (short message service).
Microsoft also will create ties to familiar applications such as Pocket Outlook, allowing a user to tap on a contact name and automatically dial the number, for example. Right-clicking on a contact will present a menu of choices, such as the ability to send a text message.
Meanwhile, corporate users will be able to synchronize their Wireless Pocket PCs with Microsoft's Exchange server software. Because bandwidth on cellular networks is limited, Microsoft included a "smart forward" feature that allows a user to forward a large file, such as a Powerpoint presentation embedded in an e-mail message, without actually having to first download it to the mobile device, Suwanjindar said.
The close integration between telephony and software applications is made possible by a technology Microsoft calls CellCore, which "allows the application environment to talk to the telephony software stack," he said.
To make the platform hipper for young people, users will be able to choose virtually any ring tone they want for their device because the tones are stored as .wav files, which can be created fairly easily on a PC, he said. Demonstrating HTC's device here, Suwanjidar showed how a user could load the roar of the 'Star Wars' character Chewbacca onto the device and use that for the ring tone.
If a user happens to be viewing a digital video clip or listening to a song when a call comes in, the device will automatically pause playing, and then resume playing when the call is finished.
Microsoft will face several challenges as it brings Wireless Pocket PC to market, Bajarin said. Handspring has established an early lead with the Treo, and similar devices based on Palm Inc.'s operating software are likely to emerge in the near future, he said, including products from Palm itself.
"I suspect what you'll end up with is a very crowded market," he said. "That will be good for consumers because there'll be a lot of choice."
Microsoft's ability to forge close ties between its gadgets and its desktop and server software is one of the company's biggest advantages and will make it a potent competitor, he said.
Microsoft now has three platforms for handheld gadgets: Pocket PC, for standard PDAs; Wireless Pocket PC; and Stinger, its software for smart phones which this week was renamed Smart Phone 2002.
The Smart Phone software is for devices that are primarily cell phones with PDA functions; Pocket PC Wireless is for PDAs that also act as cell phones. Devices in the latter class have larger screens, are intended to be operated with two hands using a touch-screen stylus, and include applications such as Pocket Word and Pocket Excel, which Smart Phone 2000 does not.
Wireless Pocket PC devices have Smart Card expansion slots, run on a 206MHz StrongArm processor, and have 32M bytes of RAM and ROM memory. In the longer term, Microsoft may add a small keyboard to the devices, a little like that of the Research In Motion Ltd.'s Blackberry device, but it will stick with the software keyboard for now, Suwanjindar said.