During the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in early January 2002, Microsoft unveiled two technologies--code-named Freestyle and Mira--designed to extend the reach of Windows PCs from the office into the far larger and more lucrative living room. The plan, launched through the company's new eHome Division, aims to leverage the power and intelligence of the PC while offering simplicity and convenience for consumers.

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Mira, which will be marketed as Windows Powered Smart Displays, is a new generation of smart screens that will "remote" the desktop experience to anywhere in the home. I was able to spend more time with various Mira devices at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2002 in Seattle this April, and this report has been updated with new photos and observations from that event, as well as information I've obtained since then.

A Mira on the future of Mobile Computing

I didn't get my first chance to play with Windows Powered Smart Displays until after Gates' CES 2002 keynote, but this technology, which extends the Windows experience to a new generation of smart displays for use anywhere in the home, shows promise. Aubrey Edwards, the Director of the Embedded and Appliance Platforms Group at Microsoft showed me a prototype ViewSonic LCD display that looks like a normal PC display (Figure). But the Mira-enabled screen can be picked up and carried around the house; the user interacts with the PC back in the home office using wireless networking, Terminal Services technology, and a stylus. It's perfect for Web browsing, and other tasks which don't require heavy keyboard input. The obvious comparison, however, is with the Tablet PC. I asked Edwards about this.

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"[Windows Powered Smart Displays] is aimed at home, not the knowledge worker," he said. "It's all about the home consumer experience, extending the Windows experience to the whole home. The power requirements for a display vs. a full OS is very different: A Mira display uses about 32 MB of RAM and a similar amount of ROM, runs Windows CE .NET, and features a relatively low performance CPU. But a Tablet PC will have a full speed x86 processor, a hard drive, and other PC components. There's no hard disk in a Mira display, no moving parts. Instead, all the applications are central in this model, so there's very little device management required."

By remoting the full power of a desktop PC to anywhere in the house, users will be able to share photos in the living room, using the TV set, say, instead of requiring people to crowd around the PC in the office. You can browse the Web from the couch, or answer email from bed. The Mira screens will use a stylus and Pocket PC-style pop-up virtual keyboard for input, instead of the full handwriting recognition features used by the Tablet PC.

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The Windows Powered Smart Displays device I tested at CES 2002 seemed to respond slowly, but Microsoft chalked that up to the heavy wireless activity at the show. I believe them, I guess, but I'd like to see how it fairs in a more typical environment. During my April visit to Seattle, the various Windows Powered Smart Displays devices I tested were also a bit pokey, but then wireless access from that location was admittedly slow: I had trouble getting online with my wireless-enabled laptop as well.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer also provided more information about Windows Powered Smart Displays during his March 2002 CeBIT keynote address. "Mira does for monitors what the cordless handset did for telephones," Ballmer said. "It frees consumers from their home offices and allows them to enjoy the complete Windows XP experience, including full Web browsing, sending and receiving e-mail messages, listening to music, and editing and displaying digital images, from any room in their homes."

In addition to Viewsonic, companies such as Fujitsu, LG Electronics, NEC, Philips, and several others are working on a wide selection of Mira-enabled displays, including 15"- 20" primary displays, which would replace your main display monitor, and a variety of 8" and 10" secondary displays, which would act as remote mobile monitors and normally be kept in rooms away from the PC. Microsoft and its partners say that Mira-enabled devices will ship in time for the 2002 holiday season. I played with a few of these devices at WinHEC, and they are definitely preferable to the massive 15" primary displays, which weigh a ton. I foresee homes have several small Mira devices, splayed around like remote controls, that can be used on the fly from bed, the living room, or wherever.

Some Mira displays will ship with wireless keyboards so that users can more easily interact with their PCs remotely. Typically, Windows Powered Smart Displays devices will offer stylus-based input, similar to that on a Pocket PC, with an on-screen keyboard that can be used for tapping out text messages. Various companies will also offer ruggedized Mira displays that can withstand drops, coffee spills, and even small children.

But the most exciting possibility for Windows Powered Smart Displays awaits its second iteration, which might occur with the "Longhorn" release of Windows, due in 2004. Windows Powered Smart Displays version 2, Ballmer promised, will do away with the one user limit imposed by Windows XP, allowing up to two people to access the same desktop PC at the same time, one via the main display, and one via a remote Mira secondary display. "The [Windows Powered Smart Displays] concept doesn't make sense otherwise, so that will be a version two feature," Ballmer said during a Q & A with the at CeBIT. "Well, it will be now." I spoke with Microsoft representatives about this, and they were unclear about the specifics, but indeed promised that the next version would support at least two concurrent users per desktop.

One odd problem with Windows Powered Smart Displays is that the technology currently only works with Windows XP Professional Edition and above; it isn't compatible with XP Home, the XP version targeted at the same consumers Microsoft hopes to attract with Windows Powered Smart Displays. Hopefully, this will be resolved by the Longhorn timeframe as well.

A future Windows Powered Smart Displays generation will also expand remote display capabilities to other devices. Microsoft sees homes being built with multiple smart screens, including fold-down units for under kitchen cabinets, and next-generation TV sets which include Windows Powered Smart Displays functionality. Presumably, any display could be retrofitting with this technology and new uses will appear as well.

Conclusions

Windows Powered Smart Displays platform software will ship by the end of the year as part of Windows XP Service Pack 1 (SP1, check out my SP1 FAQ for more information), an interim release that will add numerous new features and bug fixes. However, the only way to really take advantage of this software is to buy a smart display, of course. Its initial success will depend largely on the price: If Microsoft's hardware partners can sell 8 and 10 inch second displays for a couple of hundreds bucks, these things are going to take off quickly. But I don't see anyone shelling out $500-$1000 for a secondary display, and sadly, that's where the price range seems to be starting.