Developers should find it easier to get VoIP on Windows-based mobile devices, with an upgrade of Windows CE.

The company already has a queue of partners planning to release voice-enabled Windows CE-based products, although a beta version of CE 5.0 was only launched this week and made available on the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN).

The operating system forms the basis of Microsoft's platforms for embedded, automotive and mobile computing, including the smartphone and PDA versions of Windows Mobile. A lot of vendors want to add VoIP as an application to wireless handhelds and other devices, said John Starkweather, a product manager in Microsoft's Embedded Devices Group. The company plans to announce the VoIP enhancements at the Voice on the Net conference taking place this week in Santa Clara, California.

In the new version of Windows CE, Microsoft has added multi-party audio-conferencing, unified messaging and integration with Exchange Server to link with calendars and allow contact searching, according to the company. Windows CE 4.2 had a simpler set of telephony features.

Most of the improvements are intended to help vendors speed up their development and get their products to market more quickly, Starkweather said. It is also closely integrated with other Microsoft infrastructure, such as Windows Server.

Microsoft sees VoIP as one application among many that can run on different devices and be offered by service providers to their customers. In order to make money from voice, service providers and software and hardware makers want to add capabilities on top of it, such as video-conferencing and integration with customer relationship management software, Starkweather said.

South Korean consumer electronics maker LG Electronics, Japan's NEC Infrontia and China's ZTE are among Microsoft's manufacturer partners that are to be announced today, along with system integrator partners, including Datacraft Asia, Net2Com and BSquare, that are using the platform in systems for companies and service providers.

Vonage also plans to offer its customers "softphone" software based on CE 5.0 to install on devices such as Wi-Fi PDAs (personal digital assistants) that will let them make VoIP calls. Inter-tel, which currently sells IP office phones based on CE 4.2, sees CE 5.0 as a more complete phone platform, according to Jes Nielsen, a technical lead at the company.

With the new OS, Inter-tel may be able to run the whole phone on CE on a single processor, he said. Inter-tel's CE 4.2 phone, called the Model 8690, has one processor to run CE functions and another for higher level telephony features. The addition of support for features such as multiple-party audio-conferencing should make Windows CE's capabilities more comprehensive.

Inter-tel is aiming to get its next generation of phones on the market in the first quarter of 2005, Nielsen said. They may include voice recognition for voice-operated control of the phone and come in a variety of different configurations at different prices. The 8690 has a list price of $1,495. Atrium C&I is looking to do the same. Thier CE 5.0 phones will ship by the end of the year, said the company's VP, John Kim.

Microsoft expects to make CE 5.0 available as a finished product between June and August of this year, Starkweather said. The company did not disclose any pricing changes from version 4.2.