Network: The pocket PC

Fancy a personal computer to hold in one hand? It's coming. Alan Stewart reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Expect the "next big thing" to hit these shores to be not very big at all - hand-held personal computers (HPCs) running Microsoft's new Windows CE operating system. Three of the seven manufacturers producing HPCs - Casio, Packard Bell NEC and Hewlett Packard - recently put models on show in London.

Casio's Cassiopeia is a typical HPC: opened flat, it measures around 7in square by 5/8in thick. It has a liquid crystal monochrome display, which can be backlit "to view even in total darkness", as Casio says, and is powered from two AA-size batteries which are said to last for 20 hours.

Packard Bell NEC claims an amazing 50-hour battery life for its MobilePro HPC, which, like the Cassiopeia, weighs just under 1lb. As well as a QWERTY keyboard, the HPC comes with a stylus for its touch screen, rather than the track-ball familiar to users of notebook computers.

"The exciting thing about the new HPC devices is their compatibility with your existing Windows PC," says Anne Mitchard of Microsoft. "It's very easy to synchronise data in both directions [ie from your Windows PC to your HPC or vice versa]."

According to Microsoft, Windows CE (the CE stands for "consumer electronics") is a wholly new operating system built from the ground up to be appropriate for a broad range of business and consumer devices. "It's designed with the same user interface as Windows 95, so it's very easy to learn," says Ms Mitchard. "You have an e-mail inbox, a scheduler that's compatible with Schedule+ [with Outlook in Windows CE version 1.1], Pocket Word and Pocket Excel, so that you can download documents directly from your PC and continue to work with them on the road."

Windows CE is not limited to HPCs; it is also suitable for a whole range of new consumer devices, such as "wallet PCs". "We shall no longer carry credit cards, money, photographs of family and friends, or address books," says Ms Mitchard. "It will all be contained in your wallet PC."

Also, according to Ms Mitchard, we shall have a different set of wireless communications devices, such as digital pagers and cellular smart phones, and also different types of Internet devices, such as Web phones, set- top boxes, Internet TV's, and various other purpose-built access devices.

"Our plan is to build Internet access into all Windows platforms," says Ms Mitchard. "Windows CE has standard communications support built in, which allows it access to the Internet. You can send and receive e-mail, or browse the Web with a downloadable pocket version of Internet Explorer."

Windows CE includes an address book, calendar, task list, calculator and world clock, and software developers in the US have already produced additional software for financial management, sending faxes, wireless messaging, and even transferring images to and from a digital camera.

When will HPCs be available? "Products will be available from the seven manufacturers in the first half of 1997 in the UK," Ms Mitchard says. The other manufacturers who will be creating HPCs are Compaq, LG Electronics, Hitachi, and Philips.

So what are the advantages of an HPC over a Psion or Pilot palm-top computer? You can take your home or office files with you using an HPC, which you can connect to a modem for fax, e-mail, and Web access. Important too is ease of use: it looks like Windows because it is Windows.

For a company that ridicules the network computer, Microsoft and friends have come up with a very thin client indeed. In the US, the target price is $499, but no doubt the dollar sign will simply become a pound sign when they hit the high street. Personally, I think I'll wait for a model with a colour screen.