Handhelds With a View

Microsoft, Intel push media players' adoption; Samsung, ViewSonic, others also unveil plans.

Even in these tough economic times, Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp. are churning out new platforms and devices for mobile users. In the words of one Microsoft executive, the vendors are employing "natural selection"—letting users decide the fittest form factor for mobile computing.

Both companies were on hand at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week to unveil wireless devices ranging from smart displays to smart watches.

"Every advance thats made in each one of these areas reinforces progress in the other areas, and it drives the popularity of the other devices," said Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect at Microsoft, in a speech at CES.

For starters, aiming to prove that one-trick devices still have a place in a world of increasingly multifunction mobile computing, both Intel, of Santa Clara, Calif., and Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., were on hand to push adoption of portable media players. Microsoft announced a software platform called Media2Go, which is designed for Intels Xscale-processor-based Portable Video Players or similar devices from other component manufacturers.

Based on Windows CE .Net, the Media2Go platform includes a media player and PC integration software so that customers can manage the content of the handheld video players on their PCs. The device that Microsoft demonstrated at CES included a 4-inch screen and a 20GB hard drive, which can hold 175 hours of digital video and up to 30,000 digital images.

Officials at the companies said they are working with licensees to develop personal video player products, which are expected to hit the market late this year or early next year.

Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and ViewSonic Corp. said at CES they plan to develop video players using Intel designs and Microsoft software. Sonicblue Inc. announced plans for a personal video player last fall.

Separately, Sanyo North America Corp. and iRiver Inc. announced plans to use the Media2Go platform but did not say whose reference designs they would use. Microsoft officials said they are considering teaming with personal media player partners other than Intel.

The devices planned so far will be small enough to fit in a coat pocket and support video, audio and still pictures. Intel officials acknowledged that the capabilities are not new but are banking on the idea that some customers want a single-function device. "Theres probably nothing that you couldnt conceptually duplicate on a PDA," said Bryan Peebler, market development manager for Intels Emerging Platform Labs, in Hillsboro, Ore. "But this is really pulling the experience together as a personal video experience."

Intel has anthropologists on staff who study the way people use technology, and they determined that a personal video player would succeed, Peebler said.

Peebler said the devices likely will run from $199 to $999, depending on features such as memory size, screen resolution, streaming video and wireless connectivity. He said he expects the average price to be about $299.

Potential customers didnt dispute the idea that some people want a device that does one thing, but they said screen size could be a problem: Just because its possible to play video on a tiny screen doesnt mean its easy to see.

"On a 4-inch screen, everyone is going to look like a blob," said Kevin Baradet, an eWeek Corporate Partner and network systems director at the S.C. Johnson School of Management at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., who attended CES.

Microsoft also announced plans for its Smart Personal Objects Technology, also known as SPOT, which the company introduced at Comdex in November. SPOT is designed to provide wireless data access to devices ranging from key chains to refrigerator magnet clocks, but its initial incarnation will be in wristwatches. Microsoft worked with National Semiconductor Corp. to build an ARM-based chip set that will power SPOT devices, and at CES, Gates announced that Citizen Watch Co., Fossil Inc. and Suunto Corp. will be selling SPOT watches by the end of the year.

"SPOT to us is sort of the next evolution in what the watch should be," Gates said. "Its about glanceable information."

The watches will run at 28MHz and have 512KB of ROM. Information will be delivered to a watch on a one-way "direct band" network via an FM radio signal. "Its a really great use of technology because the infrastructure for FM is already there," Gates said.

The screens on SPOT watches are about 120 by 90 pixels, and, as with portable video players, screen size might be an issue. "The people who created these things must be under 40," Baradet said. "You have to have amazing eyesight to see the screen."

Microsoft also announced at CES that licensees are taking advantage of its Smart Display wireless monitor platform. ViewSonic has started shipping a wireless monitor for U.S. consumers. Philips Electronics N.V. plans to deliver its DesXcape 150DM Smart Display in the United States and Europe this quarter.

Microsoft continues to develop software for handheld organizers and cell phones with its Pocket PC, Pocket PC Phone Edition and Smartphone platforms, although the last has been struggling to take off.

"Ultimately, natural selection will take place out in the customer world," said Ed Suwanjindar, product manager for the mobility group at Microsoft. "The people will vote on what the killer device is."