Windows CE finds its voice

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Microsoft Corp. on Wednesday is set to unveil enhancements to the VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) capabilities of Windows CE in the upcoming version 5.0, as well as several partnerships with manufacturers and integrators that will use the platform.

The operating system forms the basis of Microsoft's platforms for embedded, automotive and mobile computing. A lot of vendors want to add VoIP as an application to wireless handhelds and other devices, said John Starkweather, a product manager in Microsoft's Embedded Devices Group. The Redmond, Washington, company plans to announce the VoIP enhancements at the Voice on the Net (VON) conference taking place this week in Santa Clara, California.

In the new version of Windows CE, Microsoft has added multiparty audioconferencing capability, unified messaging and integration with Exchange Server with calendar and contact searching features, according to the company. They complement what has been a simpler set of telephony features built in to CE 4.2.

However, most customers don't adopt CE primarily for its features because they use it as a platform to build their own software, Starkweather said. Most of the improvements are intended to help vendors speed up their development and get their products to market more quickly, he said. Microsoft also offers integration with existing infrastructure, such as Windows Server software.

Microsoft sees VoIP as one application among many that can run on different devices and be offered by service providers to their customers. In order to make money from voice, service providers and software and hardware makers want to add capabilities on top of it, such as videoconferencing and integration with customer relationship management software, Starkweather said.

South Korean consumer electronics maker LG Electronics Inc., Japan's NEC Infrontia Corp. and China's ZTE Corp. are among Microsoft's manufacturer partners that are to be announced Wednesday. Also Wednesday, Microsoft is set to introduce system integrator partners, including Datacraft Asia, Net2Com Ltd. and BSquare Corp., that are using the platform to deploy systems for companies and service providers.

Microsoft also will announce a service provider partner, Vonage Holdings Corp., which is looking to offer its customers "softphone" software based on CE 5.0 to install on devices such as Wi-Fi PDAs (personal digital assistants) that will let them make VoIP calls, Starkweather said.

Inter-tel Inc., which currently sells IP office phones based on CE 4.2, sees CE 5.0 as a more complete phone platform, according to Jes Nielsen, a technical lead at the company who is working on future phones and demonstrated the current model at VON. With the new OS, Inter-tel may be able to run the whole phone on CE on a single processor, he said. Inter-tel's CE 4.2 phone, called the Model 8690, has one processor to run CE functions and another for higher level telephony features. The addition of support for features such as multiple-party audioconferencing should make Windows CE's capabilities more comprehensive.

Inter-tel, in Tempe, Arizona, is aiming to get its next generation of phones on the market in the first quarter of next year, Nielsen said. They may include voice recognition for voice-operated control of the phone and come in a variety of different configurations at different prices. The 8690 has a list price of US$1,495.

Atrium C&I Co. Ltd., a Seoul, South Korea, company that demonstrated current IP videophones based on CE 4.2, is looking to enable multiple-user videoconferences on future phones using CE 5.0. Its current WebQ Plus models support only one-on-one videoconferencing, said John Kim, vice president of Atrium. The CE 5.0-based phones probably would ship by the end of this year, he said.

Microsoft expects to make CE 5.0 available as a finished product between June and August of this year, Starkweather said. The company did not disclose any pricing changes from version 4.2.

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