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MS plans auto PC, new handhelds

Microsoft has unveiled software for a new generation of smaller dashboard-mounted, voice-activated automobile computers and handheld PCs.

LAS VEGAS, Nevada--Microsoft (MSFT) has unveiled software for a new generation of smaller dashboard-mounted, voice-activated automobile computers and handheld PCs at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

Microsoft last night revealed "Auto PC" technology, one of many convergence technologies sprouting up from the fusion of computers and consumer electronics.

Auto PC products, running on Windows CE software, would feature an AM-FM stereo and CD player, but also would be able to accept voice commands and translate text messages to a synthesized voice output because of the use of powerful 32-bit processors such as Hitachi's SH-3.

Users could listen to email messages, traffic reports, or navigational directions.

Manufacturers such as Clarion will sell products initially priced at around $1,200 and available in the spring of 1998.

Microsoft is discussing the assembly-line incorporation of Auto PC with auto manufacturers, though because of long design cycles the computers would not be available as factory options until the model year 2000 at the earliest.

On the handheld computer front, a perennial theme at technology shows, Microsoft expects to ship a version of its Windows CE operating system for handheld devices that will compete directly with 3Com's (COMS) popular PalmPilot. This should happen by the second quarter of 1998.

These newer handhelds begin to take on advanced features such as handwriting recognition, a perpetual Holy Grail of the computer industry.

Casio and Philips Electronics (PHG) were on hand to introduce new "Palm PC" products, as previously reported. Other vendors announcing product plans included LG Electronics, Samsung Electronics America, and Everex.

The new pen-based Palm PCs will feature a 320-by-240-pixel screen that can record voice messages and perform rudimentary handwriting recognition as well as take handwritten notes.

Philips says it will offer its Nino 300 personal companion in the second quarter at a suggested retail price of $400 to $500. The Nino will include a 75-MHz MIPS processor and a built-in 19.2- kbps software modem. Software available with the computer includes a calendar and contact manager, email, and "channel browser" for viewing Internet content delivered to the user. The Nino will be offered with either 4MB or 8MB of memory.

Casio?'s E-10 Palm PC will offer similar software features, including voice recording. A modem is available as an option. Products are expected to be available in the second quarter of 1998, but no pricing was announced.

Microsoft's so-called Palm PC may face another kind of challenge from PalmPilot--a legal one. Lawyers at 3Com are watching carefully to ensure its trademarks and copyrights are protected.

"It's absolutely clear that they're trying to leverage the huge success we've had," said Donna Dubinsky, president of the 3Com division. "The selection of that particular name for products that are targeted at our products--calling that a coincidence would be a bit naive." 3Com is reportedly considering filing a trademark infringment suit, but Microsoft says it is only using Palm PC as a generic name for the platform.

With more than 1 million units sold since the introduction of the shirt-pocket-sized Pilot in April 1996, the 3Com device has been the most successful product launched to date in the category of personal digital assistants, which are mainly used to manage contacts, calendars, and messages.

Microsoft revealed last night that they estimated 500,000 handheld personal computers had been shipped since the launch of Windows CE in October 1996, including 170,000 in the past two or three months. The company based its claim on the number of licenses for the operating system it had sold, and said it expected that most of the handheld PCs have sold through the retail channel.

Reuters contributed to this report.