Microsoft: Stay connected all the time

Company aims to be the provider of software and services that will let users stay connected to the Internet and to each other all the time

Microsoft, the company best known for its operating system and productivity software -- as well as its legal wrangling with the US government -- is presenting a new side of itself to customers at the Consumer Electronics Show this week.

The new pitch: Microsoft wants to be the provider of software and services that will let users be more connected to the Internet and to each other. If the pitch sounds familiar, that's because it is. 3Com also presented its vision of a "more connected life" for its customers at CES.

While their approaches are different, Microsoft and 3Com have the same aim: Give consumers the ability and the tools to stay connected all the time. For its part, Microsoft used CES, which kicked off Thursday in Las Vegas, as a venue to present a suite of new consumer-oriented technologies. At the show, Microsoft announced that it will offer two new Microsoft Network Mobile Companion services as well as Pocket PC handheld devices (formerly known as Palm-size PCs). Microsoft also demonstrated advances in its Universal Plug and Play initiative and an updated version of its MSN Web Companion Internet Appliance.

Pocket PCs will incorporate a new user interface as well as a set of new applications, including an audio application that can play both MP3 and Windows Media format sound files in stereo. They will also incorporate a new version of the company's eBook Reader application, which will allow consumers to read, annotate and even listen to audio eBooks with embedded graphics on their Pocket PC. The audio application will be available as a download for Palm-size PCs next month, Microsoft officials said.

While Microsoft did not reveal details on the underlying user interface, sources say the UI, known by the code name Rapier, will be much simpler to use than its current generation, supporting features such as "single click to select". The Pocket PC is slated for delivery in the first half of this year. Sources said Microsoft is aiming for mid to late April.

Pocket PCs will support colour; however, to keep prices down, not every device will offer it. The devices should begin at $199 at retail, sources said. They should be available from Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer, Casio, Symbol Technologies and Siemens, which is working with Casio to develop a wide area, wireless Pocket PC. "A key thing for us is we do believe people want to do more with these devices," said Phil Holden, a Windows CE product manager. Pocket PC "is not just a PIM (personal information manager)."

With the devices now being sold for use as a music player or a book reader, users should look for them to be made available based on a service model. In such models, users would pay less for the hardware device, provided they sign up for a service, such as a subscription to electronic books, which would help the seller offset the cost of the device.

Keeping users even better connected, Microsoft announced MSN Mobile 2.0, a new service for microbrowser-enabled phones that will provide users with access to Microsoft Hotmail email and calendar services. The service will be made available in the next two months, Microsoft officials said. The company, in addition, will make its MSN Mobile service available to device makers to distribute along with their hardware.

At the other end of the spectrum, Microsoft showed off Web Companion, another Windows CE-based device platform designed to offer first-time computing users access to the Internet via MSN. The device, which will be manufactured by companies such as Acer Group and Philips Electronics, has no Start Menu, instead relying on a "start page" filled with links to services such as the Web and email. It has a permanent navigation bar at the bottom of its screen, allowing users to easily get back to where they started. A light shows when a user has email waiting.

The device also sports a set of task keys, including one that puts it to sleep, "because my grandma would have no idea what F6 was," said Deanna Sanford, lead product manager for US MSN marketing at Microsoft. "It's really designed for the first-time Internet user."

MSN Web Companion is slated for introduction in the middle of the year, Sanford said.

Microsoft is also nearing the delivery of software development and device development kits for Universal Plug and Play, a technology being developed by the company and about 65 other members of the UPNP forum that will provide communications capabilities for electronic devices. UPNP, which is based on networking standards such as TCP/IP, could be used to allow a consumer's stereo system to play an audio file downloaded from the Web by linking the stereo to a PC or any other device capable of storing that file.

As more powerful processors are installed in a wider range of devices, the collective computing power in the home increases. "We think it's important that consumers be able to take advantage of that power... in a way that will allow them to get more (performance) than they already have," said Greg Sullivan, a product manager for Microsoft's US Windows marketing and desktop solutions group. "That's how this fits into the big picture."

The forthcoming Windows Millennium edition will support UPNP's simple service discovery protocol, which allows the devices to communicate. Windows Millennium, now in Beta 2, is expected to ship later in the year.

Microsoft and the forum are also working to allow UPNP-enabled devices to be able to access Windows applications and work with the short-distance wireless networking technology known as Bluetooth.

For full coverage, see the CES News Special.

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