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Microsoft tunes media player for handhelds

In an anticipated move, Microsoft for the first time makes its media player available for download to handheld computers.

In an anticipated move, Microsoft today for the first time made its media player available for download to handheld computers.

The software giant plans to offer its Windows Media Player for owners of Casio, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard handheld computers. Some of these devices, like Casio?s Cassiopeia E-105, already have software that can play digital music or videos. Yet the deal is the first time Microsoft has offered its own media software technology for handheld devices.

Today?s move is yet another in Microsoft?s strategy to gain market share from dominant handheld maker Palm, which is set for a much-anticipated initial public offering later this week.

Palm, which hasn?t ceded much of its 70 percent market share to Microsoft since the software giant began developing its own handheld operating system, does not yet offer native support for any digital music or video technology. Palm licensee Handspring, which uses Palm's operating system, does support MP3 and digital camera add-on cards developed for its proprietary Springboard expansion slot.

Microsoft first announced plans to develop a version of the player for the palm-size PC at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last January.

The push to play digital music and video over handheld computers highlights the dramatic changes in personal computing devices. Products like the Palm have transformed from simplistic digital assistants used primarily for accessing personal information to sophisticated multimedia computers capable of wirelessly accessing the Internet. With added features, many devices have become a computing platform in their own right.

The Microsoft player allows PC, and now palm-size PC, users to play downloaded digital music and video files. These types of multimedia downloads, especially music stored in the MP3 file format, are skyrocketing in popularity among consumers. Windows Media Player allows users to download unsecured MP3 files as well as a variety of copyright-protected file formats.

Most of these video and audio files are between 5MB and 10MB in size, which means palm-size PC users will most likely have to invest in add-on flash memory cards to take advantage of the technology. The high-end Cassiopeia E-105 comes with 32MB of memory for applications and downloaded files, for example, which is still not enough to store more than about 20 to 30 minutes of music.

"This is a significant step forward in our efforts to enable consumers to enjoy Windows Media-formatted digital music anywhere and on any device," Dave Fester, director of marketing for Microsoft's digital media division, said in a statement.

Palm-size PC users can download the player for free from the Microsoft Web site.