Microsoft dives into VoIP with CE .Net 4.2

Windows CE .Net is poised to put VoIP (voice over IP) capability in handhelds, Windows-powered Smartphones and other devices with a set of enhancements for Version 4.2, the firm outlined Wednesday at the Voice on the Net conference in San Jose.

Todd Warren, general manager of Microsoft’s Embedded and Appliance Platforms Group, will outline features of the forthcoming version that are designed for making VoIP-capable hardware. They could find their way into a variety of devices, including Windows CE-based desktop IP (Internet Protocol) phones and mobile devices that can be used for calls over a wireless LAN (WLAN), said Scott Horn, director of the Embedded and Appliance Platforms Group, in a Monday interview.

Windows CE .Net is a set of components that vendors can use out of the box or customize to create embedded software for devices. Microsoft also uses it as the basis for its Pocket PC and Windows-powered Smartphone platforms. Third parties have developed software that lets some Windows CE-based devices be used for VoIP, but CE itself has not included VoIP support, Horn said.

Including VoIP features in Windows CE .Net should make it easier for vendors to integrate IP voice capability in new devices, making possible new kinds of devices and even new interfaces to well-known applications such as databases, according to some analysts.

In CE 4.2, formerly codenamed McKendric, Microsoft will provide a sample Telephony User Interface for features such as custom dialpads and a VoIP Application Interface Layer with support for SIP (Session Initiation Protocol), an industry standard for IP-based voice systems. It will also include Enterprise Infrastructure Integration services, consisting of technology for integrating computer telephony software with enterprise applications. That will include support for the .Net Compact Framework runtime environment, Active Directory and encryption technologies including IPSec (IP Security), Horn said.

Also Wednesday, Warren will announce that several original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and original device manufacturers (ODMs) are developing VoIP devices using Windows CE .Net. Major vendors include Casio Computer Co. Ltd., Hitachi Ltd., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Symbol Technologies Inc. Symbol is developing a device for use in warehouses that combines barcode scanning features with “walkie-talkie” capability over a WLAN, he said.

In addition, component makers are optimizing CPUs and reference boards for VoIP devices that will run the new operating system. They include Intel Corp., Advanced Micro Devices Inc., ARM Ltd., Broadcom Corp. and Texas Instruments Inc.

Although Windows CE .Net 4.2 will ship with SIP support, vendors that want a VoIP device to work with another protocol can build it in, Horn said. That could include the H.323 standard or other protocols used in a proprietary IP PBX (private branch exchange).

Windows CE 4.2 is in beta testing now and due for release in the first half of this year. Also in beta is Greenwich, Microsoft software for real-time communications. Combined with Greenwich and Windows Server 2003, CE 4.2 could be used to build a variety of applications for VoIP, instant messaging and presence-based activities that use knowledge of a user’s real-time availability.

Integration of voice with data applications will be the biggest boon from Microsoft’s move with Windows CE .Net 4.2, said Vijay Bhagavath, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., in Cambridge, Mass. For one thing, users will be able to receive and manage their voice mail and e-mail all in the same place, but the possibilities go beyond that, he said. Enterprise employees may be able to literally talk to an application on a server, creating a much simpler user interface to complex applications such as Oracle Corp. databases that now require extensive user training.

Voice calls could also be combined with data from applications, he said. For example, when a sales person gets a call from a customer, that customer’s profile from a customer relationship management system could come up on the phone’s display automatically.

The new capabilities should start to become possible in 2005, he said. Voice will be integrated with personal productivity, collaboration, sales, inventory, shop floor automation and other applications. The key requirement to make that possible, he added, is new middleware to bring back-end applications together with the new front end.

By making it easier for mobile device makers to add IP voice, Microsoft may help transform communication inside companies, said Alex Slawsby, an analyst at IDC, in Framingham, Mass.

“VoIP is the next generation of corporate voice communications,” Slawsby said. For example, being able to bring a Smartphone device on to the data LAN while at the office will let an employee stay mobile while bypassing the mobile operator’s airtime charges. In addition, a converged data and voice device with an 802.11 wireless LAN interface could be used for videoconferencing, he added.

Battery life is the key hurdle to making wireless LAN communication with a handheld feasible, Slawsby said.

“You might have to wear a battery pack for the next X number of years to really accomplish this with a concept of performance that’s acceptable to the user” in terms of battery life, Slawsby said.

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