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updated 2/16/2009 1:16:14 PM ET 2009-02-16T18:16:14

Even Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer knows that it's the hardware that gets people to buy a mobile phone.

(Msnbc.com is a joint Microsoft - NBC Universal venture.)

"The thing that people buzz about is the actual thing they go and buy, which is the phone, which comes from one of our partners," Ballmer said in an interview Monday.

Microsoft aims to change that with its new effort unveiled at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona: to persuade consumers to buy smart phones — the fastest-growing segment of the handset market — because they are running Microsoft operating system.

The new software will be Microsoft 6.5 in the series — but will be marketed to consumers simply as Microsoft Phone, with a new user interface and a new browser. Windows also is launching two new services, one that allows users to synch their text messages, photos, video, contacts and more to the Web and an on-line applications store that will bring together the 20,000 applications developed for Microsoft-based phones.

"It is important for us that we have a strong presence and position on the phone," Ballmer said.

More than 20 million devices carrying Microsoft's operating system were sold in 2008. Ballmer said he expects to grow the market share, but he declined to make forecasts.

"The most important thing we'll do is we're going to work with the guys who build phones that are exciting ... that are hot and tell the story of their Windows phone," Ballmer said. "The Windows phone from HTC, the line of Windows phones from Samsung, from LG, really getting with the partner and telling the story of the partner and their device."

To that end, key partners HTC, LG Electronics and Orange also unveiled new Windows phones based on the new Windows operating system in Barcelona. LG said it will dramatically increase the number of phones it offers running Windows, making it the primary operating system for its smart phones. LG said its volume of Windows phones would increase 10 times this year.

Telecoms operators — notably Vodafone — have signaled that they want fewer, not more operating platforms.

But Ballmer thinks Windows Mobile is better positioned than the other operating systems because it can run on phones for a range of prices — from the $600 smart phone to the $250 model.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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