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Palm and Microsoft to duke it out at Comdex

Forget Gore and Bush--next week Microsoft and Palm executives will walk onto a stage to debate which handheld operating system beats the socks off the other.

A debate next week between Microsoft's Pocket PC and Palm is billed as the "battle of the century," but in reality the two companies assess their differences in rather similar terms.

When executives from the two companies square off Monday at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, each will basically draw the same distinction between their products: ease of use vs. extra features.

HP Jornada
540 Pocket PC "The core argument of their platform against ours is really simplicity vs. ability," Microsoft product manager Ed Suwanjindar said. "Do you want a simple day planner or do you want the ability to do more?"

Palm chief competitive officer Michael Mace sizes up the battle similarly.

"They are trying to build a pocket-sized PC," Mace said. "We think that is the wrong thing to do."

The two sides may accentuate their differences for Monday's debate, but the real question comes down to what more people want from a handheld.

Although Palm remains the clear leader in terms of market share, even its supporters note that Microsoft is finally making strides after a number of less-than-successful attempts.

Palm first started selling its handhelds in 1996 and now licenses its operating system to Handspring and Sony, among others. Handspring is expected to join Palm on the podium Monday.

Microsoft, which licenses its Pocket PC operating system to Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard and Casio, is actually on its third attempt at success in the market.

The first round of devices, which were keyboard-based, came out in 1996. The second round of gadgets, similar to the Palm in size and shape, debuted in 1998 but failed to capture significant market share. The most current ones, such as Compaq's iPaq and HP's Jornada, are more powerful and offer many more PC-like features than their predecessors.

Full of features or slimmed down?
Suwanjindar asserts that many people want to do the same types of things on their handhelds as they do on their PCs.

"Do you want to read email with attachments? Do you want to listen to music? Do you want to read e-books? Do you want to experience the World Wide Web in color and unrestricted?" Suwanjindar asked.

Microsoft believes most Comdex 2000:
Back to the futurepeople say "yes" to such questions. Palm believes that only some people want all those features. Palm asserts that it's better to make such options available as add-ons, keeping the gadgets simple and able to maintain long battery life.

Such an approach is dubbed the "Zen of Palm," said John Cook, senior director of product marketing at Palm. "We concentrate on what really matters to people."

Palm's research, for example, shows that only 15 percent to 20 percent of the company's target market wants the ability to play MP3s, Mace said.

Palm plans to work MP3 capability into its operating system in the next revision or two. But for now, the company asserts, an add-on makes more sense, especially considering what a drain on batteries MP3s can be. Mace points to a soon-to-be-released MP3 add-on that includes a separate battery as a better way to handle that issue.

And even with the thousands of software titles and hundreds of add-ons for Palm products now available, the most used features remain the calendar and address book.

"We intentionally leave out stuff that the majority of people don't want," Mace said.

In touch with the gadget people
Just because their tactics are different, however, doesn't mean the companies can't learn from each another.

Several weeks ago, for example, Microsoft met with a bunch of Palm enthusiasts to hear their thoughts and tell them where Microsoft is headed.

"They are people we are trying to reach," Suwanjindar said. "They love gadgets. They love software."

Palm chief technology officer William Maggs sizes up the handheld market differently.

"People don't use gizmos for technology's sake," he said. "They do it to solve a problem."

While Palm has long eschewed talk of benchmarks and processor speeds, the company is nonetheless working to add new capabilities and plans to shift to faster chips based on the ARM core.

"What we are very focused on is adopting features as soon as they are ready for prime time," Mace said.

In addition to the debate, Handspring, Palm and Microsoft have other plans for Comdex. Handspring plans to announce the availability of several modules including a wireless data modem from Xircom and a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver from Magellan. Palm will likely show off its mobile Internet kit and also will unveil a new portal based on its Anyday.com acquisition.

Microsoft will demonstrate wireless Pocket PC options and has a 50-person, hands-on Pocket PC lab where convention-goers can try out the devices. On Thursday, Microsoft said it is working with French handset maker Sagem on a Pocket PC-cell phone combination that can surf the Web wirelessly.