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Windows CEntral (Aug 1998)

Could Windows CE become a casualty in Microsoft's legal war?

I Although Microsoft’s latest legal battle measures just slightly below Monica Lewinsky on the media overexposure scale, the potential after-effects on Windows CE has been keeping me involved and interested.

The investigation focuses on whether the integrated browser in Windows 98 is an anti-competitive move that will force Internet Explorer on unwilling or uneducated users. Legally, Microsoft could be ordered to separate their browser technology and design from the Windows 9x operating system. Well, as you may know, like Windows 98, every version of Windows CE also comes with a browser and, also like 98, Microsoft has integrated the browser into the file explorer system of Windows CE 2.x.

Handhelds hit harder
One factor probably not even considered by the US government is that handhelds will be affected far more seriously than desktop computers will. If the government has its way, the diminutive browser that resides pleasantly in our systems’ built-in memory could become an installable piece of software that we would have to make room for in our precious RAM. And since new versions of Bill Gates’ products require more and more space, the problem will increase exponentially. Microsoft has warned us that Java and ActiveX will add megabytes of space to Pocket Internet Explorer’s file size, but we are just starting to see high-end HPC devices with 16MB and 32MB memory configurations.

So instead of saving us from a monopoly, a decision by the Justice Department would mean costly memory upgrades or having to buy higher priced HPCs. Furthermore, this move would eliminate all hope for my dream of receiving a browser upgrade and device-specific system patches via ROM between Windows CE revisions.

Speaking of upgrades, relinquish any hopes that your current HPC is safe from the rattling saber of Janet Reno. Since Win98 is an upgrade to Win95, you can bet that future handheld upgrades (to Windows CE v3.0, for example) will fall under the same swift sword that separates church and state —er, desktop OS and IE.

Palmsize aftershock
In the light of all this disaster to the HPC platform, the potential repercussions to the palmsize PC could also be devastating. While the brand new palmsize PC does not have a built-in web browser, it ships with the "Mobile Channels" viewer, an application that allows your desktop to obtain special content from the Internet and download it directly to the PPC for viewing at any time.

As a background, mobile channel technology had a near death experience before even reaching the PPC. With a public lack of understanding and slow acceptance on the desktop, Netscape abandoned their "NetCaster" channel technology earlier this year. Shortly afterwards, Microsoft announced that the "channel bar"--a window on the desktop that displays the channels a user has subscribed to--has been removed from Windows 98 because it wasn’t being used. Despite all the bumps along the way, Microsoft channel technology has endured to make a reintroduction as the channel browser on the palmsize PC. Because PPCs are mobile and disconnected by their nature, Mobile Channels have no better place than Windows CE. And the Windows CE platform makes a clear statement that channel technology is the "World Wide Web for the mobile user."

But, if the Justice Department’s ruling has any effect on channel technology, it could be the death sentence on the most promising Internet technology ever to come to the handheld world. And should the PPC operating system and the channel browser be separated, the low memory systems may not be able to bear the burden. Imagine having to download and install the mobile channel application, an update for your desktop Windows CE Services, and then trying to work through subscribing to a mobile channel. New users won’t want to go through this hassle for a technology they don’t even understand. And even if the PPC has room for the application, it may not have enough memory for the first channel to which the user subscribes.

Defend or retreat?
Legal experts, of course, could argue that since Netscape does not have a product for Windows CE, the same level of competition does not exist at the handheld level. However, Microsoft might not find this a war worth fighting. After all, if their desktop operating system ships without a browser and the web-style file explorer, should any of their operating systems?

The one positive result we might see from separating the browser and the operating system is an accelerated development cycle for the Pocket Internet Explorer browser. Although I am satisfied with the functionality of the browser, many users have expressed their irritations with the disparity between Internet Explorer v4.0 on the desktop and Windows CE’s built in browser.

Whatever the outcome, Windows CE clearly stands to become the innocent bystander who gets hit in the crossfire. The possibility exists for a serious shift in handheld computing, as well as the complete elimination of a new and promising technology. And the truly insulting part about it is that the government probably doesn’t even realize what they’d be doing to an entire subculture of computer users.

-Dan Hanttula is the platform editor for Windows CE and Magic Cap operating systems and the president of HomeRun Advertising.

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