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The HTC Touch smartphone will run Microsoft's new and improved Windows Mobile 6.1. (Microsoft)

Taking a cue from rival Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp. is promising "desktop-grade" internet browsing on cellphones using its Windows Mobile operating system by Christmas.

The company unveiled upgrades to Internet Explorer Mobile and Windows Mobile at the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association trade show in Las Vegas on Tuesday. The improvements to the browser will allow for full-screen browsing of web pages and multimedia on smartphones and will be available by the holiday season, the company said.

The new operating system — Windows Mobile 6.1 — will improve functions including setup, e-mail, messaging and security, and will start to roll out in the second quarter of 2008.

Microsoft announced a number of devices on which Windows Mobile 6.1 would be available, including the HTC Touch, Motorola Moto Q and the Samsung Blackjack, through U.S. carriers such as AT&T and Sprint, but did not say whether any of the smartphones would be available in Canada. The company did list Telus Corp. among its partners for Windows Mobile 6.1, however.

Industry observers said Microsoft's move to improve web browsing on cellphones was a direct response to Apple's iPhone, which revolutionized the experience when it launched last year. The iPhone combined a desktop-like browser with a touch-screen interface, which experts hailed as superior to the existing surfing experience that existed on smartphones, including those running Windows Mobile.

Analysts have also said Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion Ltd. has done a better job in catering to business users with its BlackBerry smartphone.

Scott Rockfeld, group product manager for Microsoft's mobile communications business, rejected claims that the company was playing catch-up to Apple and RIM.

"The reality is Windows Mobile outsold both those guys in 2007," he told CBCNews.ca. "They've actually got some catch-up to do."

Rockfeld said Microsoft licenses Windows Mobile for 14.3 million devices in 2007 and was aiming for 20 million this year.

He did praise the iPhone, however, for putting a lot of attention onto the smartphone market.

"It really raised the awareness of what a smartphone could do and everybody is benefiting from that," he said.

Technology research firm IDC expects smartphones — or cellphones that have e-mail and internet browsing features — to grow from about 10 per cent of the market currently to 30 per cent in the next three years.