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Microsoft PocketPC by April

PocketPC's new user interface and application software, codenamed Rapier, is the easy-to-use successor to Microsoft's Palm-size PC

Microsoft is preparing an April launch of, and a new suite of applications for, its PocketPC. The software maker hopes that consumers will find PocketPC's user interface and application software, codenamed Rapier, an easier to use successor to its Palm-size PC.

PocketPCs will offer new hardware designs from a number of vendors, along with the new user interface and applications, such as Pocket Explorer and Pocket Word. The device's underlying operating system will be Microsoft's Windows CE.

New PocketPC devices will be divided into two categories, or classes. PocketPC Standard devices, sources said, will offer basic personal information management (PIM) capabilities, with the addition of Microsoft's Pocket Explorer and Microsoft Mobile channels, which allow users to automatically download Web sites when on the road. PocketPC Standard devices, with monochrome screens, will start at about $199 (£123), sources said.

PocketPC Standard devices are meant to be "a good personal organiser with Microsoft channels and good connectivity," according to a source.

Microsoft and its hardware partners will also offer a more feature-rich PocketPC device, called PocketPC Professional. The Professional, a name borrowed from Microsoft's Handheld PC Professional, will include Microsoft's Pocket Word and Pocket Excel applications for the first time, as well as the new Pocket Explorer, sources said.

The Word and Excel applications will likely be used to view documents and spreadsheets on the PocketPC Professional. Light editing should also be possible. It's not yet known if Microsoft has changed file formats for the applications to allow Word 2000 or Excel 2000 documents created on a PC to be read without translation on a PocketPC or vice versa. The device will also sport improved handwriting recognition software.

In addition, PocketPC Professional will offer Microsoft's electronic book reader application and clear type technology, which will allow users to read electronic books on the devices. Also included will be the Microsoft Media player application, which can play MP3 or Windows Media Player audio files.

PocketPC "is not perfect, but it's a real improvement over the last generation," said a source familiar with the device.

It will have to be to woo customers away from Palm Computing's products, however. PocketPC, formerly known as Palm-size PC, has been a distant second to the Palm line of handheld devices since their introduction in 1998.

Observers say that the lower price points of the monochrome PocketPC Standard devices are aimed squarely at the Palm and its licensees, such as Handspring, which sells the Visor handheld.

Palm Computing this week announced its first colour device, the Palm IIIc.

Microsoft officials were contacted for this story, but they declined to comment on unannounced products. The company did say, however, that Hewlett-Packard, Casio and Compaq Computer will be among its PocketPC hardware makers.

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