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Microsoft to tout handheld in marketing blitz

The software giant is launching a nationwide promotional tour in an attempt to convince consumers, one by one, of the benefits of its upcoming Pocket PC handheld device.

Microsoft is launching a nationwide promotional tour in an attempt to convince consumers, one by one, of the benefits of its upcoming Pocket PC handheld device.

On April 6, the software giant will launch a nationwide marketing blitz, entitled the "Pocket PC Seeing is Believing Tour." Microsoft product managers will barnstorm user groups around the country to demonstrate and evangelize the yet-to-be released handheld device.

The tour underscores the importance Microsoft places on establishing a solid foothold in the handheld device market. While the company's software powers more than 90 percent of the world's PCs, top executives, including president Steve Ballmer, have conceded that Microsoft's success in the non-PC world is far from assured.

Microsoft's efforts to target non-PC systems with its Windows CE operating system have so far had limited success. Those first attempts received a less-than-spectacular response from customers and analysts, leading Microsoft to make some major changes with Pocket PC, which also uses the Windows CE operating system, although in a re-branded form. With the Pocket PC, expected to debut next month, Microsoft is now going directly to its customers to make its case.

"This is a cornerstone of Microsoft's strategy with the Pocket PC--they have to get it out in front of as many people as they can," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with Gartner Group. "You can't appreciate the depth of features unless you actually play with this thing."

When first introduced, the Windows CE devices were touted as providing many of the same features as the full-sized version of Windows running on standard PCs. Customers, however, have generally preferred competing devices from Palm Inc., which sold about 70 percent of all devices shipped last year, according to International Data Corp.

The hardware companies that made Windows CE-powered handheld devices, including Compaq, Casio and Hewlett-Packard, are expected to release Pocket PCs this year. Philips and Everex, however, have discontinued their Windows CE systems.

This time around, Microsoft is admitting that the full gamut of Windows features is not suited to tiny devices. The company has re-branded Windows CE and now labels devices running the operating system as "powered by Windows," although the basic operating system remains the same. Microsoft is also making sure that people understand just what the new Pocket PC devices are intended to do.

In addition, by taking its Pocket PC message to the masses, Microsoft may be trying to mimic the grassroots approach of its rival, Palm, which famously depends on its "Palm Economy" of users and developers for word-of-mouth marketing.

"In order for it to be successful, people have to be able to pick the thing up and compare it side by side with the Palm," said Gartenberg. "It's a good strategy for them, and it will probably pay off."

Microsoft, for its part, has not officially announced the new devices. The company has shown off some of the new features, including the Windows Media Player and improved Ebook reader, as well as enhanced email and spreadsheet features. Microsoft confirmed that the tour will kick off on April 6.

During the meetings with the Windows user groups, Microsoft product managers will conduct product demonstrations, hand out T-shirts, and offer free prizes, including Pocket PCs, to attendees.