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Microsoft plays catch-up on palm connections

The software company is scrambling to play catch-up in the handheld computer market, focusing its latest efforts on how these small devices connect to the Internet and corporate networks.

LAS VEGAS--Microsoft is scrambling to play catch-up in the handheld computer market, focusing its latest efforts on how these small devices connect to the Internet and corporate networks.

At the Comdex trade show here today, Microsoft sought to close a frustrating gap with rival Palm Computing by expanding connectivity options for its Windows CE customers through new initiatives designed to simplify the process. Windows CE is Microsoft's scaled-down operating software for computing devices of all types, including handhelds and TV set-top boxes.

Although benefiting from the legions of software developers trained to write applications for the Windows interface, Windows CE has been relegated to the sidelines as the company has struggled to simplify the user experience and streamline connectivity options. Today's announcements are aimed at the latter, providing new compatibility with corporate information databases and new wireless Internet add-ons.

In terms of hardware market share, Microsoft has continually lagged behind Palm, which has steadily accounted for 75 percent of the market, according to research from International Data Corporation. But both companies are now laying the groundwork for the future battle, which is likely to take place on smart cell phones connected to the Internet, rather than separate handheld computers. Toward that end, Palm has signed deals with Nokia and the Symbian group to put its software on upcoming cell phones. Palm also said today that it will be working with Sony on a "next generation" handheld platform that uses memory storage technology from Sony and the Palm operating system

Comdex: Closing the millennium Microsoft announced an alliance with Extended Systems to create server software, which will help synchronize data on large corporate servers with employees' palm-size or handheld PCs based on Windows CE. Microsoft is hoping that, by making it easier to access corporate information on CE devices, the company will start signing up large companies as customers.

Specifically, Extended Systems provides access to email, contact databases and calendar information stored on Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes/Domino Servers and ODBC-compliant databases such as Microsoft SQL Server, Sybase, Oracle and DB2. In addition, Extended Systems will be compatible with Windows 2000 when the new operating system is released, Microsoft said.

Microsoft also announced the Socket Communications Kit, which will allow Windows CE users access to Internet content and email using a data-capable cell phone. Microsoft's competitor in the handheld space, Palm Computing, offers a different wireless option with its proprietary Palm.net service for the Palm VII device. In addition, OmniSky this week will announce a third-party wireless solution for the Palm V device.

"The power efficiency and universal compatibility of Socket's card combined with the color screens and Web-browsing capability available on the latest generation of palm-size PCs offers mobile users an unbeatable solution for wireless connectivity," Rogers Weed, director of marketing for Microsoft's productivity appliances division, said in a statement.

The software and hardware combination includes the Microsoft Mobile Connection Wizard, Web browser, AvantGo information service and ActiveSync 3.0. Socket also announced a Digital Phone Card, which fits into the compact flash slot in a Windows CE device and allows the user to access the Internet using a Web-enabled cell phone. The solution is less of a battery drain than other modems or Internet access products for handheld computers, Microsoft said.

Phones from Nokia, Qualcomm and Ericsson will work with the Digital Phone Card. The Digital Phone Kit will be priced around $99. Pricing for the Communications Kit has not yet been announced.