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Microsoft gives details on Web device

The software giant offers more information about its new Web access device, its latest hope for turning around its MSN and Windows CE product lines.

LAS VEGAS--Microsoft today disclosed more details about its new MSN Web Companion, one of the first devices designed solely to use a specific online service and the company's latest hope for turning around its MSN and Windows CE product lines.

The new Web Companion, which will run on the Windows CE scaled-down operating system, is unlike other computers because it makes a direction connection only to the MSN Internet service when turned on. The devices were shown for the first time last night by chief executive Bill Gates in his keynote address at Comdex.

Microsoft's new devices, which are to be manufactured by companies including Compaq, Philips, Acer, Vestel and Thomson, have no set design. The devices Gates demonstrated were small notebooks without batteries, using only power cords, but other prototypes reportedly consist only of traditional monitors with wireless keyboards. The devices are in testing and expected to be available in mid-2000.

The Microsoft Comdex: Closing the millennium Web Companion connects directly to Microsoft's MSN services, allowing users to access the Internet without making a series of decisions about software, browsers and Internet connections.

The Web Companion, although still in the prototype phase, is one of the first of a new class of information appliances designed specifically with Internet access in mind. Although the Web Companion resembles a small notebook computer, other designs for this class of device include smart Web phones, handheld computers, and television set-top boxes. Microsoft is hoping that many of these devices will run on Windows CE and connect to its MSN service but has thus far had a hard time convincing customers.

This new generation of Net-centric devices are the industry's newest take on the network computer concept, a vision first put forth by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison years ago. The original idea included "dumb" terminals connected to powerful server computers, which would store all user data. That incarnation was voided by the rise of inexpensive PCs, but new devices like the Web Companion, which offers no local storage and is designed only for Web-base applications, are similar to the original vision.

The new device is also the company's latest attempt to boost the struggling MSN and Windows CE groups, although it is the first time the two product lines have been integrated. Because the Web Companion, which is expected to be priced below $200, connects only to MSN, Microsoft is hoping the new line of devices will help boost stagnant MSN subscription rates.

But Microsoft isn't the only online service provider to look at nontraditional ways to boost membership numbers; America Online is at work on AOL TV, which will offer America Online through a television set-top box, as well as a new partnership with Gateway to develop Internet-centric products.

"Microsoft is continually seeking innovative ways to provide consumers with a choice in this 'PC-plus' era, and we're taking a leadership position with Internet access devices," Jon DeVaan, senior vice president of Microsoft's consumer and commerce group, said in a statement.

Windows CE's instant-on capability is also a bonus for products like the Web Companion, which are likely to be used in a quick-hit manner.