US Report: Windows CE to go wireless

Microsoft's Windows CE is poised to get into wireless communications in a big way.
Written by John G. Spooner, Contributor

Next year Microsoft will enable the Windows CE platform, including software and hardware that support the operating system, to use both short- and long-range wireless communications to tie into Windows NT 5.0 and back-end systems such as Exchange 6.0 and SQL Server 7.0. Short-range wireless capabilities will, for example, let users with Windows CE devices access data from anywhere within an office building or from a factory floor.

Long-range, or wide-area, wireless communications will help solve access problems faced by a sales force trying to exchange data with the corporate office. It will enable a remote user to stay connected to e-mail and back-end data using a Windows CE device and wireless service instead of relying on dial-up modems.

A limited number of wireless solutions are available today for Windows CE devices and 3Com's PalmPilot. AT&T's Wireless Services, for example, has pieced together a CDPD (Cellular Digital Packet Data) service for PalmPilot devices using a Novatel Minstrel modem.

Microsoft's efforts aim to provide much broader support by building wireless support into its applications as well as its operating systems. This approach will give users access to more types of data, including e-mail, calendars and address books, in addition to information stored in databases. "We made a decision a year ago to focus on wireless infrastructure," said Phil Holden, group product manager for Windows CE. "Without the rest of the plumbing, [wireless communications] is pretty much irrelevant."

Microsoft will attack short-range wireless communications first. At its Professional Developers Conference later this month in Denver, Microsoft will announce wireless LAN capabilities for its Handheld PC Professional software and applications, according to Holden. Handheld PC Professional is a reference specification for large-form-factor CE-based handheld PCs being announced at the conference.

Microsoft is optimising its Windows CE TCP/IP stack for wireless communications and including wireless LAN drivers and utilities developed by Proxim in the US. The drivers will support Proxim's RangeLAN2, a 2.4GHz radio-frequency-hopping wireless LAN technology, which transmits data at 1.6M bps.

Users will be able to connect Handheld PC Professional devices to wireless LANs by plugging in Proxim PC Cards. The Proxim cards link into Ethernet LANs via RangeLAN2 Access Points or to other notebooks through RangeLAN2 7400 cards. Wide-area wireless will be a harder sell to IT, since wireless connectivity "has got to be easier, cheaper and faster than it is right now," said David Greenberg, a handheld PC user and president of Avio in the US. To that end, Microsoft has established the Wireless Ready Program, an engineering effort with service providers including AT&T and Bell Atlantic Corp. and device makers including Hewlett-Packard Co. to develop wireless CE devices.

Microsoft is working with OEMs to develop a way to compress data for wide-area transmission and with wireless service providers to ensure that CE devices have adequate support for Global System for Mobile Communications and CDPD services. Microsoft is also negotiating with carriers and solution providers to bundle handheld PCs with services to deliver packaged solutions, Holden said.

Such services will be available on Handheld PC Professional and other CE devices, such as those being developed under a program called Chimera, in the next year. Chimera is a project aimed at developing new CE devices that integrate wireless, voice and data capabilities, Holden said.

While Holden would not comment on specifics of that effort, sources close to the project said a CE-based cellular phone and PDA, similar to QualComm's pdQ device, is under development.

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