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Microsoft plans to radically boost the multimedia performance of the next generation of PDAs and smartphones based on its software, if pronouncements made at this year's Professional Developers Conference (PDC) come to fruition.

We're not just talking bigger screen sizes here. PDC coverage among specialist Pocket PC and smartphone sites has focused on the software giant's plan to raise the resolutions supported by Windows Mobile devices to 480 x 640 for Pocket PCs and 240 x 320 for smartphones.

That titbit, revealed in a 'Developing for Windows Mobile' session, followed Toshiba's launch last week of a Pocket PC with a 4in 480 x 640 screen. Of course, only specially written software supports the Toshiba e800's display - running the OS and regular apps drops the screen into the traditional 240 x 320 mode. But it's clear that Microsoft intends to support bigger screen resolutions in future versions of its operating system.

Bigger screens are nice, but were a logical step in the evolution of both hardware and software. More interesting is Microsoft's announcement to roll its DirectX multimedia APIs into Windows Mobile.

Interestingly, the company's porting efforts are centring on the visual components of DirectX - DirectDraw for 2D, Direct3D and DirectShow for camera and video digitisation support - rather than audio.

Anyway, adding these APIs - all of which are now very well established on the PC and Microsoft's Xbox games, and are widely used by developers - should see an increase in the availability of 3D content, primarily games. Nokia is obviously touting the availability of that kind of content as a selling point for its N-Gage console-cum-phone, but it's not hard to imagine it rolling out its own 3D technology into other devices such as the successors to the media-friendly phones it announced yesterday.

Microsoft doesn't want to be left behind, particularly when mobile media is likely to become a more important selling point than personal information management, as the PDA becomes increasingly sidelined as buyers choose smartphones and media-focused devices such as the Portable Media Centre concept its currently trying to persuade consumer electronics companies to buy into.

The PMC is based on Windows CE.NET, as is Windows Mobile, so it's not hard to see the need to add a solid multimedia foundation to the one platform being touted as a gain for the other.

It also plays very neatly into Intel's hand, which is itself bringing PC processor technology to its PDA and smartphone-oriented XScale chips. The next generation of XScale, codenamed 'Bulverde', will support a version of Intel's MMX technology, which is essentially a bunch of extra instructions that accelerate the kind of calculations multimedia apps do. DirectX will undoubtedly leverage MMX, allowing Intel to tout its chip as the best processor for next-generation Pocket PCs and PMCs.

Meanwhile, ATI and Nvidia are increasingly looking to take their graphics acceleration technology into the handheld arena, and the availability on mobile platforms of an established API to connect applications to their hardware will be of considerable benefit to them. Windows Mobile's DirectX implementation is likely to be based on DirectX 8 - not the cutting edge, but a pretty powerful version nonetheless.

Intel's Bulverde is due in the second half of 2004, coincidentally also the timeframe for not only the next version of Windows Mobile - the one with DirectX support - but the new release schedule for PMCs, too.

Equally coincidentally - surely? - that's around the time we expect to see Palm OS licensees shipping Palm OS 6 devices. Many of new OS' key improvements centre on multimedia and graphics, and the Palm's acquisition of Be suddenly starts to make a lot more sense. As we've reported before Palm OS 6's multimedia and graphics frameworks are drawn from BeOS, and should provide the platform with equivalent rich media APIs as Microsoft wants to bring to Windows Mobile. ®

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