CES - Microsoft "Smart Displays" begin shipping

Microsoft 's plan to let people access their PCs from wireless "Smart Displays" located about the home draws closer to reality this week. After a slight delay, ViewSonic Corp. on Wednesday will release the first product in the US based on Microsoft's new software, with a similar device from Philips Consumer Electronics Co. due out at the start of February.

The "Windows Powered Smart Displays," known previously by the code name Mira, allow users to access their PC through a touch-screen display that can be carried about the home. The display communicates with the PC via the 802.11b Wi-Fi networking standard and allows users to read e-mail, surf the Web, play music and use other applications as if they were sitting at the PC.

Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates previewed the technology at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas early last year. The first devices originally were intended to hit store shelves in time for the holiday shopping season just ended, but the hardware and software took a bit longer to complete than the company expected.

Two displays from ViewSonic will be available Wednesday, said Megan Kidd, a Microsoft product manager. The ViewSonic airpanel V110 has a 10-inch screen and is priced at US$999; the V150 has a 15-inch screen and sells for $1,299. The prices include a USB (Universal Serial Bus) Wi-Fi adapter which connects to the PC, allowing it to communicate with the wireless display. The prices also include an upgrade to Windows XP Professional Edition, which is required to use the displays.

ViewSonic has been taking orders for the products since late last year. They begin shipping for the first time Wednesday from CompUSA, Amazon.com, Buy.com and other outlets. A ViewSonic spokesman wouldn't say how many of the devices were pre-ordered.

Also Tuesday, Philips announced that its first Smart Display, the DesXscape 150 DM (intended to sound like "desk escape"), will ship during the first week of February priced at $1,499. The 15-inch display is slightly slimmer than ViewSonic's, Kidd said, and for a limited time the price includes a wireless keyboard. It does not include an operating system upgrade.

Both products should also be available in Europe in the first quarter this year, Kidd said. Separately, NEC Corp. and Fujitsu Ltd. on Jan. 14 will announce plans to ship Smart Displays by the end of March for the Japanese market. Products from all four vendors will be on show this week in a "digital home" that Microsoft has constructed in a parking lot at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Kidd said.

Analyst company Gartner Inc. is skeptical of the need for Smart Displays, regarding them as "an idea in search of a home."

"For the price versus the functionality, at the moment there's no compelling reason to own one," said Leslie Fiering, vice president of mobile computing research at Gartner. Consumers who want to check e-mail or surf the Web around the home can just as easily use a notebook with a Wi-Fi connection and save themselves some money, she said.

Microsoft expects demand for the products to come initially from "early adopters," suggesting high-volume sales aren't expected for the first wave of displays. But prices are likely to drop with future iterations, which should lead to more widespread use, Kidd said.

Indeed, Microsoft already is talking about planned improvements for future versions of its Smart Display software. Beta testers have told the company they'd like the ability to log into applications running on their PC and their wireless display concurrently, which isn't possible with the first wave of devices because of "application licensing issues" and security features that are part of Windows XP, Kidd said.

The first devices also can't display cleanly a DVD video streamed from a PC, largely because the "remote desktop protocol" in Windows XP Professional Edition can't handle the high volume of data. "Streaming video is another area we're working on. It works, but the experience isn't great," she said.

Microsoft is working on both issues for a future version of its Smart Display software, although the release of that is still "a ways out there," Kidd said.

Nevertheless, feedback from beta testers has been positive, according to Kidd. One Arizona man liked being able to check his e-mail in the garden while he kept an eye on his children in the pool, she said. Being able to surf the Web and check a recipe from a Smart Display in the kitchen, for example, has also been popular. "Once they got used to the mobility they didn't want to go back," Kidd said.

Other developments are also in the works. Electronics maker BenQ Corp. is developing a 10-inch display expected to ship in the second quarter this year, while Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. expects to have one out in time for the holiday season in late 2003, Kidd said.

Microsoft is also working with Hewlett-Packard Co. to allow Smart Displays to show the user interface developed by HP for its Media Center PC, which is designed for multimedia use. The software giant is also exploring ways to get its Smart Display software into other appliances so that users can view digital pictures stored in their PC on a television screen or through a digital projector.

"The first form factors are wireless monitors but we're looking at ways to evolve the category," Kidd said.

ViewSonic is also working to embed Universal Electronics Inc.'s "home control" software into its displays, allowing users to control their stereo, VCR and other appliances from the touch-sensitive screen. That capability is expected to be on offer in the second quarter, a ViewSonic spokesman said.

Microsoft has so far pitched the technology squarely at consumers. In the workplace Smart Displays potentially could interfere with other wireless networks, Kidd said, but the company is exploring ways to get around that.

Smart Displays differ from another recently launched Microsoft platform, the Tablet PC. These are also portable displays that can be carried around like a clipboard, but unlike Smart Displays they are also full-fledged PCs that run applications locally. Users can write directly on the screen using a digital pen.

Gartner's Fiering was far more bullish about Tablet PCs. When prices for those devices come and more applications are available Gartner expects them to be widely used, particularly among vertical industries.

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