London recently hosted a major four-day Windows show. I'm getting increasingly cynical about the value of these shows because I can pull so much information directly from the Web. I wonder when we will see the first virtual computer show held entirely on the Internet.

The London Windows show was intriguing for the absence of new, exciting products. Still, I saw a lot of attendees--even the last day, traditionally a quiet time, was packed. Windows NT Magazine gave away nearly 10,000 copies of the current issue.

Microsoft was at the show in force, demonstrating Office 97 and the new Visual Studio suite. The former has been shipping for weeks, but the latter is news, especially to people waiting to see what power features Microsoft has added to Visual Basic (VB). No grand presentations of Internet Explorer (IE) 4.0 took place, despite a major IE 4.0 press event on the first day of the show. About the only real excitement at the Microsoft stand was the demonstration of Windows CE handhelds. I know that handhelds, such as the Casio Cassiopeia and the Compaq and NEC equivalents, are rather old news to you in the States, but bear in mind that Windows CE hasn't been launched in Europe yet.

Why the delay? Well, European release raises the inevitable localisation issues associated with keyboard layouts, operating system versions, power supplies, and the like, but these issues cannot account for the nearly six-month delay. We've had to wait for the 1.1 version of Windows CE until the hardware shipment. Even Hewlett-Packard (HP) will have its gorgeous, full screen-width Palmtop PC available when you read this report. At press time, HP was still working on the screen design, which lacked contrast, and the prototypes I looked at had a fairly horrible keyboard.

Europe has a native Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) design and manufacturing facility in the excellent Psion series (http://www.psion.com), and fully featured handhelds are very well established. Psion, a leading player in the European PDA marketplace, has a turnover of some $75 million, which although good, is not huge in the face of a sustained battle with the forthcoming Windows CE PDA marketplace. Some enterprising hardware vendors are grey-importing Windows CE devices from the US to Europe. However, even after an extended play session, I didn't find my wallet straining at the leash. The lack of Outlook support is one major omission that Windows CE 1.1 rectifies. Another fear is that these are very early days of the application of Windows to the handheld. No doubt, though: Microsoft is much more serious about Windows CE than the old WinPad initiative.

One good development I spotted at the show: lots of training packages and courses, both for end users and developers. One stand launched some interactive training and questions for the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) exams. The Oxford Test Server (OTS) lets you download sample exam questions. I discovered that it's a VB application hosted onto an Access database file. The company claims that the OTS is one of the UK's first fully functioning Merchant Server applications, but I found little evidence of this claim on OTS's Web site. I would rather have seen a proper .asp interactive client/server Web application. You can find OTS at http://testme.ocx.com/index.htm.

EMWAC
I like keeping an eye on European Microsoft Windows Academic Centre (EMWAC-Web site http://emwac.ed.ac.uk/default.htm). It provides information services and support for Windows NT within academia around Europe. Companies such as Microsoft, Digital, Research Machines, and Sequent sponsor EMWAC, which is headquartered at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Regional sites are in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Sweden, Italy, and so forth. UK university survey results shows that NT is gaining considerable attention in the IT facilities at academic sites. If you are an academic user of NT in Europe or want a contact point, EMWAC is an excellent starting point.