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Software maker plays mobile hand

Germany's SoftMaker hopes its productivity applications for handheld computers will draw customers to the PC versions.

SAN DIEGO--Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the productivity section of your local software store, somebody else wants to displace Microsoft Office.

Germany-based SoftMaker, which has been selling word-processing software in its homeland since the mid-1980s, recently began to market its word-processing and spreadsheet software in the United States. The company was promoting its wares at the Desktop Linux Summit here.

The company's main claim to fame for its products: The application that lets you crunch sales numbers or draft memos on your PC can perform the same task on your handheld computer.

SoftMaker sells four versions each of its TextMaker word processor and PlanMaker spreadsheet program--two PC versions for Windows and Linux and two handheld versions for models based on Microsoft's PocketPC and Sharp's Zaurus formats. Palm support is in the works.

The handheld versions use the same document formats as the PC counterparts and are nearly identical to the PC versions in features, offering everything from a large library of fonts to special formatting options. Other handheld word processors are abbreviated applications mainly useful for jotting down notes.

The handheld applications have drawn the most attention in recent years, SoftMaker spokesman Martin Kotulla said. "Most customers have found us through the mobile versions," he said.

Once customers get familiar with the SoftMaker applications they often decide they would like to work in the same applications when tethered to a PC, Kotulla said.

TextMaker and PlanMaker have interfaces and menus similar to their Microsoft Office counterparts and are fully compatible with Microsoft document formats. "That's the most important thing, making sure people can work with people using Microsoft Office," Kotulla said.

SoftMaker enters an increasingly crowded market. In addition to Microsoft's market-leading Office, Corel's WordPerfect, Sun Microsystems' StarOffice and its open-source sibling OpenOffice are all competing for space on PC desktops. Specialty software makers such as Britain's Ability Plus also hope to take a chunk out of Microsoft's dominance.