Microsoft's starting a major push into the smart-phone market with two technologies: Stinger, which places most Pocket PC features into an advanced, color-display phone; and Mobile Explorer, which provides basic Web-browsing capability on less expensive feature phones.

Here's news about the coming merger of cell-phone and Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) technologies—and much of it comes from Redmond. Microsoft's starting a major push into the smart-phone market with two technologies: Stinger, which places most Pocket PC features into an advanced, color-display phone; and Mobile Explorer, which provides basic Web-browsing capability on less expensive feature phones.

Microsoft hopes that Stinger, in development for some time, will be the dominant technology moving forward. I've played with working prototypes, although the feature set (and the time I was permitted to play) was limited. These phones exceed the dimensions and weight of today's smallest phones, but they're smaller and lighter than the old analog phone that lives in my briefcase. The new phones' size buys you a relatively large display—in color on some models—and a full range of PDA features, including the usual personal information manager (PIM) emulation—calendar, contacts, tasks, notes, and so on—as well as email and Web browsing.

The catch? The phone requires a version of Microsoft's Windows CE. Expect it to cost a bundle, either in an up-front purchase price that could reach $800 or in monthly service fees that will quickly equal or exceed that figure.

Mobile Explorer's less ambitious technology will compete head-to-head with today's Wireless Application Protocol (WAP)-based phones. Microsoft describes Mobile Explorer as "a lightweight microbrowser-based solution." Its great advantage is that it supports both HTML and WAP. HTML support eliminates the need for a WAP gateway such as Microsoft's Mobile Information Server.

So far, Microsoft has failed to attract big-name cell-makers to either Stinger or Mobile Explorer. Only Samsung and Sendo (a company I don't know) currently show Stinger prototypes. Samsung, Benefon, and Sony's European division are evaluating Mobile Explorer. The big-name cell-phone makers—Motorola, Ericsson, and Nokia—plan to use Symbian's competing software. We might not see phones based on Stinger or Mobile Explorer in the United States anytime soon.

Yet Microsoft has delivered one thing of immediate value: an emulator that puts a "virtual" cell phone running Mobile Explorer on a PC desktop. Thus developers can start working with the technology now—and ultimately give Microsoft's technology a leg up. Download the emulator from Microsoft or get an overview of Microsoft's strategy for phones.