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Gates' WinCE mobile phone demo – vapourware again?

The demo was highly improbable, as was the claim that it was MS-designed...

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From the reports of his performance this week at Telecom 99 it would seem that Bill Gates has been embroidering the truth again. Which is maybe just a little bit risky, because the telecoms people tend to be rather more hard-bitten and cynical than his usual audiences. During a speech Gates mounted a demo of a Windows CE-based GSM phone browsing the Web. Allegedly this was a prototype Microsoft developed itself, and which will be available for trials in both GSM and CDMA flavours next year, but we at The Register have severe doubts about the first part, and feel that Microsoft is being unnecessarily vague about the second. Scratch development of a mobile phone is a non-trivial exercise. If you haven't got the technology then what you should do is go to one of several design houses in Cambridge (not a lot of people know this) and get them to do you one off-the-peg. This is what numerous tier two and below phone manufacturers do. Failing that, especially if you want to incorporate something non-standard like Windows CE, you cut a deal with an experienced developer and get them to put together the hardware for you. This is what Microsoft did with France's Sagem last May, and it was indeed just the other day that Microsoft and BT announced trials of a CE cellular system using Sagem and Samsung handsets (See story). Exactly why Microsoft would go to the trouble and vast expense of developing its own WinCE handset when the Sagem jv is ready to roll with a production service in Q1 is entirely unclear. It is however clear that Microsoft hasn't got the technology, despite rumours to the contrary. In the GSM field it's bought Sendit, a Swedish software outfit specialising in cellular email and Web access (i.e., software, not handset technology) and the UK's STNC, which developed the microbrowser (no hardware again) used in the "prototype" and now dubbed "Microsoft's" microbrowser. So it seems clear to us it must have been a Sagem, but there are a couple of worries. The demo showed the handset downloading high graphics HTML pages at 9.6kbit/s with apparent ease, but the phone didn't use WAP. The demo itself was an obvious fiddle, as the pages were cached, so we've got a number of problems here. First, why didn't it use WAP? Microsoft is a WAP Forum member, so unless this can be filed in the "only kidding" department, there's no religious reason not to. Maybe they haven't got it working yet, or maybe Microsoft is again getting caught out by its age-old belief that infinite bandwidth is just around the corner, so it can bloat if it likes. Or maybe Bill thought WAP pages were just too grungy for one of his vision pieces. Then there's the matter of the connection - didn't anybody tell Bill you can at least demo faster connections? Wouldn't any of the companies showing GPRS systems let Microsoft play? Or couldn't they get somebody to set up a demo multi-channel rig? And finally there's this caching matter. If the phone was able to cache feature-rich HTML pages then it's pretty easy to spot that its (and/or Windows CE's) hardware requirements are too large for the mobile phone business. In summary, we fear the cream of Europe's wireless techies will have spotted all the joins, and been severely underwhelmed. ®

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