Microsoft has been in the news a lot recently in the run up to the launch of the Tablet PC on 7 November. But this is only one strand in its drive to get your PC off your desktop, and into every room in your home.
Microsoft unveils its vision of a wireless future for home computing
While Tablet PC is aimed primarily at business users, Windows Powered Smart Displays, previously known as Mira, target home users.
The devices, which will come from a range of partners, are essentially wireless-enabled displays, which allow you to access the functionality of your desktop PC from any room in the house via an 802.11b wireless network. The aim is to allow you to access all the features of your computer from any room in the house. For example, you could download recipes in the kitchen, or listen to streamed digital audio in the living room
Microsoft EMEA product manager, Nancy Nemes, describes Smart Displays, as the "evolution of the monitor". She says that with the Smart Displays, the company is "looking to create a new device category, like Pocket PC or Smart Phones".
At launch, which Nemes says is slated for the first quarter of 2003, there will be two form factors: 15in and 10in. Microsoft anticipates that the larger model will be used as a primary display and undocked for use away from the desktop, while the 10in unit will act as a second, remote mobile monitor. Many more form factors are expected to emerge in the future, said Nemes.
The devices run Windows CE .Net and require the use of Windows XP Professional's remote desktop management feature, which will force XP Home users to upgrade. Nemes says that its partners will bundle the upgrade to XP Pro with the devices, along with a wireless USB hub to help them set up their network.
Nemes showed rather touching faith in retail channels by saying that one way in which customers would be helped to set up a wireless network, was via advice in store. No retail partners have been appointed yet.
Pricing will be set by Microsoft's partners, who include Toshiba, NEC, Philips, Viewsonic, LG and Fujitsu, but Nemes says it’s likely to be around $800-1,000 (£500-650).
This pricing puts it in the same range as a low-cost notebook, but without the functionality. Nemes says Microsoft doesn't see this as an issue as the Smart Displays are not intended to compete with laptops, despite their relatively similar form factor and portability.
"[A Smart Display] is a peripheral, it is not intended to be instead of a laptop. If you want to take a computer out of the house, then get a notebook. If you want to wirelessly access your data all over the house, then a Smart Display is better", says Nemes. She also points out that thanks to the lack of local processing power the Smart Display can be both light and cool.
The Smart Displays are designed to appeal to early adopter home users, "super users" in Microsoft-speak. The company says its research shows there are 64.2mn of such users in its top five markets, Japan, USA, Germany, UK and France. When it surveyed 5,000 super users in the USA, it found that 86 percent were interested in Smart Displays.
Nemes admits that the largest uptake will probably be in the USA, where it is forecast that by 2005 two million homes will be wirelessly networked. It may be harder to sell the concept in the UK where the figure will be just 1.2m by 2003.
While in its current format a Smart Display is useless without a powered-up desktop PC, future versions may include more onboard features, such as local storage or MP3 players. Many of the devices that launch next year will include built-in speakers so you can listen to music streamed from a desktop PC. In fact the only activity you can't port from your desktop to the display is 3D gaming, as the bandwidth provided by 802.11b is not great enough.
In the short term Microsoft is looking at ways to twin up Smart Displays with high definition wireless television sets so you could watch from any room.