Microsoft unveils 'Windows embedded handheld' efforts

Microsoft today described an operating system branding and restructuring effort aimed at the enterprise mobile devices market.

Microsoft today described an operating system branding and restructuring effort aimed at the enterprise mobile devices market.

The first such devices based on the new "Windows Embedded Handheld" OS brand will use the Windows Mobile 6.5 platform, with the earliest release expected in the next six months, according to video comments by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Ballmer also heaped praise on Motorola for announcing today that it plans to release its ES400 enterprise digital assistant device, based on Windows Mobile 6.5, later this year.

Ballmer's comments stopped short of calling the ES400 a Windows Embedded Handheld-branded device, but that was the implication. The ES400 for GSM and CDMA networks will be available through the Motorola sales teams and from Sprint. It will have features for remote workers such as a touch screen, bar-code reader, "full-shift" battery power, Wi-Fi with push-to-talk VoIP capability, a fingerprint reader, GPS location, a camera and a three-year lifecycle, among others.

Microsoft is planning a second wave of Windows Embedded Handheld-branded phones that will be based on Windows 7, specifically Windows Embedded Compact 7. Original equipment manufacturers can select the Windows features they need for devices using this componentized OS. Those devices are expected to appear in the "second half of calendar year 2011," according to Microsoft's announcement.

Ballmer suggested that enterprises could be assured that Microsoft would protect line-of-business applications within the lifecycle of Windows Embedded Handheld products.

"We're also going to provide a clear path for enterprises to migrate line-of-business applications to our new application platform, based on Microsoft Silverlight and Visual Studio 2010," Ballmer said in the video. "These releases will provide proven management and security functionality, while giving customers confidence that investments in the handheld enterprise devices and line-of-business applications will be protected by an extended support lifecycle."

Ballmer did not explain whether there will be a clear operating system upgrade path for Windows Embedded Handheld devices, such as when migrating from Windows Mobile 6.5-based devices to those using Windows Embedded Compact 7. Earlier explanations from Microsoft associated with upgrading Windows Phone OSes (which also use the Windows Mobile 6.5 OS) have suggested either that there is no upgrade path or that it will be difficult to do.

A question to Microsoft on the OS upgrade path topic was not answered by press time.

Microsoft recently reorganized its mobile OS development efforts, as seen here. Windows Phones are managed under its Mobile Communications Business unit and that unit has the consumer market in its purview. A separate Windows Embedded Business unit oversees Windows Embedded Compact and the new Windows Embedded Handheld businesses, which are aimed at the enterprise, industrial and ruggedized device markets.

Recent high-level executive departures at Microsoft's Enterprise and Devices Division, which includes mobile efforts, were the latest signs that Ballmer aims to spur Microsoft's sometimes flagging mobile efforts. However, Microsoft's ruggedized handheld OS predominates in the market, according to VDC Research. In 2009, 87 percent of shipped ruggedized handheld devices ran Microsoft Windows Embedded CE or Windows Mobile, according to a VDC white paper (PDF download).

Ballmer's video comments weren't specific on the management functionalities that will be enabled with the new Windows Embedded Handheld devices. However, a Microsoft blog on smart phones posted on Wednesday suggested that the company is contemplating "enabling some Administrative tasks from smart phones." Possible tasks include resetting passwords, viewing the status of services and viewing service requests, but Microsoft is seeking feedback on which features to prioritize.

Such capabilities may not apply with Windows Embedded Handheld devices since they are typically designed for specific remote field work, rather than general use.