CES: Microsoft aims to simplify wireless world

Windows CE .Net will run on everything from mobile phones to robots, and will tap into Microsoft's .Net Web services, but critics remain unconvinced

With the launch this week of Windows CE .Net, Microsoft is pledging to extend its vision of Web services to the complex world of mobile devices. But critics say that Microsoft's PC-style approach is ill-suited to simple, low-power, low-bandwidth devices like mobile phones -- at least in its current incarnation.

.Net is Microsoft's overarching strategy for an Internet services infrastructure that mimics the ease-of-use and wide adoption of the Windows desktop infrastructure. The plan aims to make Web services creation as easy as Windows application development, giving developers more control over both the way the service works at the back end, and the way the user experiences it on the client side. .Net became a major part of the predominant desktop PC platform with Windows XP.

Windows CE .Net, launched on Monday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is a crucial piece of this puzzle, because it is designed to hook directly into the .Net infrastructure. And because it uses Microsoft-based development tools, developers can create software for Windows CE-based gadgets in an environment similar to the tools used to create Windows desktop applications. Because CE works on a number of different types of devices, Microsoft's approach also means the same embedded application can be easily deployed across different kinds of hardware.

"One thing that's really critical is having a consistent programming model that works across a range of models," said Scott Horn, Microsoft's embedded and appliance platform director. "If programming a cell phone is completely different from programming for a PDA or a Web pad, no developer is going to target all those devices."

The .Net capabilities also mean that users can be automatically logged in to Passport, Microsoft's user authentication system. For example, instead of visiting Microsoft's Hotmail Web email service and typing in a password, a cumbersome process on a mobile phone, a .Net device could automatically authenticate the user and access Hotmail or any other .Net service. Windows CE .Net is the first version of CE to include Passport support.

The software is also better than before at handling different connection speeds -- for example, automatically adjusting when the user switches from a slow mobile phone connection to a fast wireless LAN, and can automatically react when the device is disconnected, according to Microsoft.

In attempting to bring everything from a digital watch to a Web tablet into the .Net fold, Microsoft has made efforts to use open standards such as XML (eXtensible Markup Language), so that any standards-compliant device should be able to take advantage of .Net services to some degree. But the future, as Redmond sees it, is clearly to use the availability of attractive .Net services to encourage device manufacturers to build Microsoft software into their devices -- as opposed to rival "smart" embedded technologies like Sun Microsystems' Java.

"End customers purchase products based on the experience that the product provides, and if some devices provide a richer experience than others, customers seek them out and buy them," said Horn. "Customers want the rich experience, and OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) will invest in that rich experience. (The mobile market) is very heterogeneous, but some of that heterogeneity may go away in the future." The PC market has been so successful in part because it is dominated by a single operating system, creating a huge, easily accessible market for software developers.

Non-Microsoft devices will be able to link in to .Net services, but only if they are specifically .Net-enabled, Horn said.

He compared the mobile phone market to Microsoft's growing success with Pocket PC handheld computers. In that market, Microsoft has consistently focused on more complex, powerful devices with PC-like capabilities, compared with market leader Palm, which first brought handheld computers to a wide public with streamlined products that focussed on ease-of-use.

"In the cell phone space, there are a lot of low-end phones out there, and it's not much of a service experience," Horn said. "It's the same as in PDAs. We provide a richer experience in the PDA market, and a lot of people are voting with their chequebooks."

But critics say that Microsoft's feature-rich approach is exactly the wrong way to handle wireless devices, for which low power consumption and slow connection speeds are conditions of existence.

"(Microsoft's) idea of a better mobile experience is having something like a PC, and you can't do that over a 9.6 kilobits per second connection," said Simon Rockman, publisher of What Mobile magazine. "They looked at how badly WAP did, because people expected to have lots of nice colour stuff on mobiles, and they're trying to deliver that. But if you've got to wait for half an hour for the title screen to load, it's not worth using."

He contrasted their approach to the UK's Pogo Technology, which has created a wireless thin-client that relies heavily on server-side compression to quickly deliver Flash-based Web pages.

Rockman said Compaq may have done Microsoft a disservice with its successful Pocket PC iPaq. "It allowed them to be hugely successful without changing the way they think. They need to understand pocket devices better," he said.

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