At the Embedded Systems Conference this week, Microsoft finally announced a timetable for the release of PocketPC devices based on the next version of Windows CE. But it also introduced some enhancements to Windows CE that it hopes will propel PocketPC, game console, and set-top box devices based on CE to a level of success that has so far eluded the small OS. These enhancements include the first DirectX multimedia adapter kit and a new media player that resembles the one Windows 9x/NT/2000 users are so used to.

The DirectX Platform Adaptation Kit (DXPAK) for Windows CE allows hardware makers to create set-top box devices and game consoles to take advantage of the latest multimedia features, including 3D graphics, streaming audio and video, and Internet capabilities. Upcoming devices such as the MSN Web Companion as well as existing CE-based devices such as the Sega Dreamcast will be able to take immediate advantage of the technology.

"Windows CE is on the forefront of portable and small-footprint devices with impressive multimedia capabilities," says Don Chouinard, the marketing manager for Windows CE. "The DirectX capabilities will not only enable \[hardware makers\] to create remarkable consumer devices, they will also be used in dedicated devices in the manufacturing, health-care, automotive and retail markets. Kiosks in retail stores and human-machine interface displays on the factory floor will use the streaming video support to enhance the capabilities of their products. In addition, patient data displays and in-car navigation systems will be able to offer high-speed graphics, wide I/O support, and network connectivity."

DirectX for Windows CE supports a wide range of the capabilities developers are used to in other versions of Windows. This includes DirectDraw, DirectSound, DirectShow, and the various Windows Media technologies.

In a related development, Microsoft also unveiled the Windows Media Player for Palm-sized PCs, the current generation of devices that will soon be supplanted by PocketPC devices. Windows Media allows owners of Compaq, Casio, and Hewlett Packard Palm-sized PC devices to enjoy a variety of audio and video formats, including the resource-friendly Windows Media format.

"From the beach to the gym to the subway, Palm-size PC owners can now turn their Windows CE-based devices into portable digital music players," says Dave Fester, the director of marketing for the Digital Media Division at Microsoft. "This is a significant step forward in our efforts to enable consumers to enjoy Windows Media-formatted digital music anywhere and on any device."

Microsoft's moves in the palm-sized arena may be too little, too late, however. Market leader 3Com recently announced a color Palm model and its Palm division is expected to be one of the most successful IPOs of the year. Windows CE fate may hinge on a sudden shift to Internet terminal devices, such as the ones targeted by the DirectX Platform Adaptation Kit. Otherwise, it will once again find itself in the unenviable niche category of also-ran