updated 3/8/2005 4:34:49 PM ET 2005-03-08T21:34:49

Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates promoted new business software Tuesday that is designed to improve virtual meetings, a move he said can boost office productivity and reduce corporate travel expenses.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software company will debut three products over the next several months as part of its emphasis on "real-time collaboration." The growing business niche includes instant messenger services, Web conferencing and Voice over Internet Protocol devices, which allow users to make telephone calls using the Internet at lower costs than with normal phone companies.

Companies such as Time Warner Inc.'s America Online unit and broadband phone company Vonage Holdings Corp. have moved into the burgeoning category. Gates said the Microsoft Office unit _ which can leverage the dominance of the Windows operating system — won't lag rivals.

"You could say it's one of the big frontiers that Office is moving ahead on," Gates told about 400 people at a San Francisco news conference.

(MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

The gathering included more than 1,000 virtual participants from Los Angeles to London. Gates said Microsoft has saved roughly $40 million in travel expenses through collaboration software.

The software allows users to write messages in chat groups, watch real-time videos at their computer terminals, get phone messages delivered by e-mail, edit Word documents, present PowerPoint displays, examine spreadsheets and conduct online polls in real time with more than 1,000 other people around the world.

Microsoft Office Live Meeting is Web conferencing software that allows users to conduct meetings from any PC connected to the Internet. Pricing and licensing will be announced when the product is available on Wednesday.

Microsoft Office Communicator 2005 integrates the personal computer and the desktop telephone. It also supports Voice over Internet Protocol and makes it easier to conduct multiparty telephone conferences. Pricing and licensing will be announced when the product is released within 90 days.

Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2005 promises to have better compatibility with non-Microsoft instant-messaging clients and block junk messages from marketers, known as "spim." It allows corporate IM networks to connect with clients or partners' networks through standard firewall ports.

It will be released as a free download in the second quarter of 2005. Pricing for new customers will be announced when the product debuts.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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