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MS ‘Windows for iPod’ delayed but still marks death of PDA

And if Microsoft doesn't do it, Apple will

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Microsoft's 'Windows for iPods' operating system appears to be taking longer to ship than the company previously forecast.

The software giant yesterday said it was working on system software for handheld media players. Now called Portable Media Center, it's a Windows CE.NET variant that will ship in devices "in the second half of 2004", according to Microsoft.

The Beast readily admits that PMC is a re-named Media2Go, the Windows CE.NET-based system it began talking up earlier this year at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show. Back then, in January, the company said devices based on the platform would "reach store shelves toward the end of 2003".

Whether the delay is a result of Microsoft's coding schedule or simply because licensees - including Creative, Viewsonic, iRiver, Sanyo, Samsung and Tatung - want more time to design hardware and debug products before shipping them in time for either the 'back to school' sales period or Christmas next year, isn't known.

Essentially, the PMC is a handheld music player - primarily WMA 9, but also MP3 - that can also show movies and record TV shows, TiVo-fashion. It will also allow users to store all their digital photos.

Of course, we can do all this already using a PC, but Microsoft reckons it's a logical extension of that activity to want to take content with us when we're on the move. PDAs can already make a pretty decent stab at mobile media playback, but Microsoft's own Pocket PC format leaves too much to be desired on the battery life front for it to morph into a video iPod just yet. PDAs also need hard drive storage.

With the PDA already threatened from smartphones, might iPod-style devices also help pull the rug from under the format's feet? Certainly, the iPod now has basic PIM facilities - enough, at any rate, to display data that has been entered into the system via a host PC. With my calendar and contacts sync'd onto my iPod, do I need to carry my Palm too? It's certainly easier to drop PIM data onto an iPod than carry enough memory cards to make the PDA a worthwhile music centre.

It's not too hard to imagine the addition of pen-based text entry - offered by Mac OS X for over a year now - or a phone-style keypad or Blackberry-esque micro keyboard. Equally, upgrading its screen and software for video playback is possible now.

Such a system also neatly dovetails with the Personal Server concept Intel has been playing with of late. Chuck in wireless for localised file sharing and things start getting very interesting indeed.

Oddly enough, rumours have been circulating about a video iPod for some time now - it was expected by some to debut this past summer - but Apple's mooted tablet-style display system is more interesting as a broader home media platform.

Whatever Apple is working on, Microsoft's delay will give it more time to get the thing out and onto the market. For its part, Microsoft will have versions of Windows Mobile that run on all the key portable platforms - smartphones, PDAs and, next year, media devices - so it's covered whichever way the market goes. All three, probably, with the PDA increasingly being squeezed by the other two - until PalmOne or Sony starts building hard drives into Tungstens, Zires or Cliés, at which point the two platforms become one.

Exit the classic Personal Digital Assistant, stage left. Enter the Personal Media Assistant, shouting... ®

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