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Gates unveils new CE and Compaq-built Web appliance

Looks like the old CE with ClearType and MP3, if you ask us...

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In his CES keynote last night Bill Gates went some way towards fleshing out Microsoft's strategy for the consumer electronics business, but not quite far enough for observers to see absolutely clear daylight. He demoed smart phones, a new version of CE, the latest rev of the MSN Web Companion and Auto PC, but didn't entirely nail down how all this hangs together - if it does, that is. And of course the announcements were largely iterations of existing products and/or concepts. Pre-keynote leaks had suggested that the lad intended to announce a whole new consumer strategy and a decisive refocussing for the operating system formerly known as CE, but as is so frequently the case when he speaks, Gates didn't quite get it together. But that doesn't mean the refocussing isn't happening. The Windows CE group, which wasn't directly referred to in the major Microsoft reorganisation late last year, is now part of Jim Allchin's platforms group, and is working with the Embedded NT group within a new Embedded/Appliances Platform Group. The devices Gates showed last night could be viewed as the public/consumer face of CE, but the way Microsoft has now divisionalised the OS suggests it sees at least some implementations as being sufficiently shrunk down for them to play on the less smart versions of mobile phones. At the moment Microsoft is pitching its microbrowser at these, and reserving CE for more powerful devices, but that won't be the case forever, and there's probably a lot more that we can't see going on under the covers. Last year's decision to stop calling things CE machines and call them Windows Powered instead ties in with this too, as the use of a broad Windows banner allows a certain amount of blurring. So it won't be a surprise if some of the products from the Embedded/Appliances Group turn out to be not CE at all. Gates has however injected some more blurring/confusion with the tag for the next rev of CE devices, Pocket PC. Of course they're probably still Windows Powered. Here though Gates did give a clear indication of where Microsoft sees these things going. Pocket PC devices will use ClearType and Microsoft Reader software, and Microsoft is allying with Barnes & Noble in order to produce books you can read on them. The electronic book notion, although at this point in history a seriously dumb idea, is close to Bill's heart, and obviously he thinks that it provides CE, or whatever it's called today, with a plausible route to success. Pocket PC devices will also support Windows Media Player, and that's perhaps a more serious runner. Portable MP3 players are happening, so this could provide a purpose for devices that haven't always looked like they had one. The MSN Web Companion seems to be happening too. Hilariously, Microsoft has yet to produce any seriously hard information about this box, preferring instead to whip it out during more general presentations. The one Bill showed last night however had been built by Compaq, so it looks like we've got at least one manufacturer in tow. But although the bits were interesting, overall coherence seems to be lacking. Microsoft's head consumer thinker Craig Mundie is due on tonight, however, so maybe he'll come up with a bit more form. ®

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