Microsoft's New Home Tablet Initiative Redefines the Webpad (July 2002
If you're thinking about buying a new monitor or a new PC, you're probably considering getting one with a flat LCD screen. Microsoft's "Mira" (derived from Spanish for "to watch") simply makes that LCD mobile. Mira is a wireless, pen-enabled monitor. You'll also see it referred to as a "smart display," which isn't a very useful name, since it doesn't mean anything specific. Why would anyone want a wireless monitor? To be able to use a home PC in any room of the house, or even in the back yard. According to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, "Mira does for monitors what the cordless handset did for telephones." Think about that for a moment - it's a darn good analogy. "Mira," by the way, is only a temporary code name. Microsoft hasn't decided on a final name for product. They'll have to decide soon, though, since Mira products are scheduled to be available in time for Christmas 2002.
Extending the Experience
Next, during his Comdex keynote in November 2000, Gates demonstrated an
Think of the applications and features you use on your PC, and then consider whether some of them would be easier or better used away from the desk and room where the PC lives. One of the most obvious uses is reading news and other Internet content (browsing the web). Wouldn't it be more comfortable to do it in an easy chair or on the couch with a Mira mobile monitor? But don't stop there -- what about reading and responding to email, doing instant messaging, reviewing your personal finances, planning a trip with mapping software, doing crossword puzzles, viewing and editing photos, playing solitaire, doing minor editing with a productivity application, playing and managing MP3 files, sharing your photo albums with friends, reading ebooks, listening to Internet radio stations, or reading endless documents and presentations from work? Finally, breaking away from the "couch" environment, what about accessing technical information from a CD-ROM for your car while you're in the garage?
The basic concept of the Mira is to extend the Windows PC experience to any room in the home. When you're using a Mira, you're using your PC. This is significantly different from using a webpad. With a webpad, you're limited to browsing the Internet and using a few, limited-functionality CE applications. When you're using a Mira, you have access to all the data and applications that are resident on your PC. This means that the Mira reflects all of your personalized PC settings such as My Favorites, My Pictures, folder settings, etc. It also means that you have access to all of your PC peripherals, such as printers, CD burners and Zip drives. Mira is your PC, wherever you want it. This is what Microsoft calls "relaxed, casual computing." For a very slick, two-minute Microsoft concept video of a family using a Mira in four different rooms on two different floors of a house, visit http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/mira/video.asp.
Initial Form Factors
Most Mira V1 products will be available in one of two basic form factors: "primary detachable monitor" and "secondary mobile monitor." For the remainder of this article, these terms are shortened to "main monitor" and "mobile monitor." The Mira main monitor, as the name implies, replaces the standard CRT or LCD monitor on a PC. When a Mira main monitor is being used next to the PC, it's connected via a VGA or DVI cable, just like any other monitor. However, it can be detached (removed) from its base and used anywhere in the house. When it's mobile, it communicates with the PC via WiFi (802.11b) wireless. Most of the Mira main monitors to be announced in 2002 will use 15" XGA (1024 x 768) LCDs, since that's the current "sweet spot" in LCD monitors.
Mira mobile monitors can be used only remotely from the PC. They can't be connected directly to the PC like a main monitor. They also communicate with the PC via WiFi (802.11b) wireless. Mira mobile monitors will generally have some form of docking cradle (or at least a passive stand) to hold the unit while it is being used with a keyboard and a mouse. Most of the Mira mobile monitors that will be announced in 2002 will use 8.4" or 10.4" SVGA (800 x 600) LCDs, since that's the design center of most webpads.
The Input Problem
Looks pretty cool, doesn't it? As long as whatever you're doing doesn't require a lot of input, everything's great. Most Mira monitors have will touch screens (resistive digitizers) for use with a pen, on-screen keyboards, handwriting recognition (Transcriber, the same as on a Pocket PC), and a method of connecting a corded or cordless keyboard and mouse (USB, IR, RF, etc.). But what if you want to write more than a one-line response to an email? Handwriting recognition and on-screen keyboards are never going to be practical for long emails or anything else that requires a lot of input. A real keyboard is the only solution. But how do you actually do it? Do you put the Mira on the coffee table and the keyboard on your lap? The screen's hard to read at that distance. Do you put them both in some sort of "portfolio" case and balance the case on your lap? It's clumsy and awkward. With a Mira main monitor, it's impossible because it is too big. The reality is that if you need to use a keyboard, you're going to put the Mira (in a stand or dock) and the keyboard on a table or desk. At least it doesn't have to be in the same room as the PC.
The OOBE Challenge
The ultimate target market for Mira is any consumer with a PC. The out-of-box-experience (OOBE, what the consumer sees and does when they first open the Mira box) is therefore very important. Microsoft is going to significant lengths to make the OOBE as easy as possible, but it's a challenge. Consider the case of the consumer who has a PC running Windows XP Home but knows little about it (they just use it). The PC must have an internal or external wireless Access Point installed and configured, and XP Home must be upgraded to XP Pro (more on this later). There may be wireless dead spots in the home due to plaster walls or other problems. In the worst case, the consumer may have decided to upgrade to broadband at the same time, so the broadband configuration may also be added to the mix.
To help minimize this complexity, Microsoft is working with the Mira OEMs to ensure they develop appropriate bundles - for example, a PC and Mira already fully configured. Microsoft is also in discussions with retailers and other organizations about wireless installation services, though they aren't ready to talk about any details yet. Intel, who sells WiFi (802.11b) hardware to OEMs building Miras, is also sensitive to the problem. "We're trying to figure out easy mechanisms for setup and connectability for the wireless system. We want to make it so my mom can use it" (Mike Iannitti, Director of Extended Computer Operations at Intel, in a story in EE Times).
When you sign on to a Mira, the process is almost the same as signing on to XP. The fact that you're doing it over a wireless link is almost transparent. Figure 1 shows a screenimage of a prototype Mira logon screen. Looks a lot like XP, doesn't it? One Mira can connect (sequentially) to multiple PCs, thus the "Connect to:" field in the upper left corner. The Battery and Connection indicators are self-explanatory, but the Application buttons need some explanation.
Mira is actually a full Windows CE-based computer. It could run Pocket Office or other CE applications. However, Microsoft is discouraging the Mira OEMs from including any standard Windows CE applications in the Mira ROM. Only very simple, consumer-oriented applications such as "TV remote control" or "electronic picture frame" (software that displays photos from external storage cards) are recommended. The user starts these applications via two dedicated Application buttons - note that there's no other way to start local applications. Microsoft's reason for this limitation seems to be to ensure that the product positioning is crystal clear - it's a remote monitor, and you're running applications on your PC. Period. As soon as you add meaningful local applications and data, then you've introduced a sense of "state," where the user has to think about whether they're working locally or remotely. Microsoft believes that for Mira's ultimate target audience, simplicity is critical.
Not everyone agrees. Probably the most vocal disagreement comes from The Register, a UK-based, on-line publication whose slogan is "Biting the hand that feeds IT." Their story, entitled "Microsoft's Mira - take smart display, maim, serve" is worth reading. Visit http://www.theregister.co.uk/
Comparison with Other Devices
Microsoft has put an unusual amount of effort into carefully delineating the differences between Mira and other related products. To some extent, this seems to be driven by Microsoft's Tablet PC project; there is concern about potential confusion between Mira and Tablet PCs. The differentiation was clearly drawn in technical terms in the WinHEC sessions, but for the keynote-level speeches, Microsoft boiled it down to "Mira is like a cordless phone (you can only use it in the house), while the Tablet PC is like a cellphone (you can use it anywhere)." Paul Thurrott commented on this in his WinInfo Daily Update (www.winnetmag.net) on April 19, saying "One problem with introducing new technology to the masses is that you have to dumb it down for the attention-deficit-disorder crowd. Microsoft's recent attempts to differentiate its Mira remote-display technology from the Tablet PC are groan-inducing. Seriously, did anyone actually confuse these products?" Table 1 presents this author's version of a product type-comparison. See the sidebar on "Other Wireless Monitors" for information on related products. (See Table 5 for a listing of other related products).
One might ask, is Mira an "information appliance?" Microsoft's answer is a definite no. The Microsoft Mira team is careful never to use the dreaded "IA" word. Information appliances were a hot future product in 1999 and 2000, but they basically died a quiet death in 2001. The IA word is now associated with failure, and Microsoft wants no part of it.
Why Not Another PC?
The main competition for Mira is another PC. After all, if you want to use a PC in the living room, and you want to use a keyboard, why not just buy a laptop? The answer is cost and complexity. A Mira monitor should be substantially lower cost than a decent laptop, and ideally even lower cost than a low-end PC (more on cost later). Complexity is even more significant. It can be difficult, expensive and time-consuming to keep multiple PCs at the same level in terms of application versions, anti-virus files, favorites, user interface tweaks, downloads, data file synchronization, etc. Setting up a full-scale home network to deal with this just raises the complexity level even further. If the objective is to give your teenager their own PC in their bedroom, and they're going to manage it themselves, then a second PC makes sense. But if the objective is to extend your own use of the PC to other rooms in the house, then a Mira is worth consideration. One final aspect is the "quiet, cool, instant-on" nature of a Mira. It's substantially more comfortable and convenient to use than a laptop (assuming that a high volume of keyboard input isn't required, of course).
Most of the stories about Mira in the computer trade press have been factual, with relatively few dissenting opinions. This is probably because Mira is a new concept in the consumer space, compared to the Tablet PC. The latter carries a lot of baggage from the last 12 years that tends to evoke strong opinions. The majority of the published opinion on Mira so far has been positive. An example of both sides is as follows:
"Mira is a big deal," said Martin Reynolds from Gartner Dataquest. "It's compelling because you have the applications running on the computer itself. There's no need for very fast processors on the Mira pad; that will just burn the battery."
"Microsoft thinks you'll carry around an LCD panel as a remote-access device for your home PC. Maybe as a drink tray..." (Stephen Howard-Sarin, writing for ZDNet's AnchorDesk).
Whenever Microsoft comes up with a new product concept, the world has learned to ask, "Is it real? Is it going to stick, or is it just another half-baked idea?" Not everything Microsoft tries is successful. For example, take the Auto PC. Have you heard anything significant about it since 1999? On a "realness scale" of 1-10, the author puts Mira at about 6-7. In comparison, the Tablet PC is at about 9. One way of gauging this factor is to look at the number of people on the respective project teams at Microsoft. The Tablet PC team has around 200 people; the Mira team has around 20. However, that's actually a little misleading. Tablet PC requires creating a separate version of Windows, along with many capabilities for creating, managing, manipulating and storing digital ink. That takes substantial engineering resources. Mira, on the other hand, is simply a repurposing and tweaking of existing technologies. Also, assessing Microsoft products requires taking a multi-year view, acknowledging their incremental step-by-step approach, and the fact that Microft doesn't care what hardware form-factor wins.
Mira V1 is a classic Microsoft product. It's a set of existing technologies, nicely packaged, well-positioned with strong marketing spin, and defined as a platform on which OEMs, IHVs and ISVs can develop products. The key technologies in Mira include the following:
Are you surprised to see "webpad hardware designs" listed as one of the key technologies? Webpads and wireless monitors are both "embedded devices." They both need a CPU and an embedded OS to drive an LCD, manage a wireless link, send and receive data from various ports, accept input from a touch screen, etc. It turns out that today's webpad hardware designs are an ideal starting point for Mira.
- Existing webpad hardware designs
- Windows XP
- Microsoft Windows CE .Net
- WiFi (802.11b) wireless LAN
- Microsoft Terminal Services
Windows XP is obviously a key technology. Mira V1 monitors will be supported only on XP Pro, because the underlying technology that allows a remote session (Remote Desktop) is only in XP Pro, not XP Home. In addition, XP Service Pack 1 must also be installed, because it includes all the Mira-specific PC technology. In the long term, clearly the Mira technology must be included in XP Home in order to serve the target market. In the short term, according to Aubrey Edwards, Director of Marketing for Microsoft's Embedded Appliance and Platform Group (EAPG), Microsoft is "working hard to ensure that consumers will have as few hurdles (both technical and financial) as possible for Mira V1."
Windows CE .Net (4.0) is the obvious choice for Mira's embedded OS, since Windows XP Embedded would be overkill for a product as simple as a wireless monitor. A Mira-type product could certainly be built with Linux as the embedded OS, but then it wouldn't be a Microsoft product, would it? (See the sidebar on "Other Wireless Monitors" for an example.)
WiFi (802.11b) wireless is also the obvious choice for the physical communications between Mira's mobile display and the host PC. In Mira V1, the 11 Mbps speed of "b" is plenty fast enough. Intel says they will migrate to a dual 802.11a/b combination next year as wireless hardware costs come down.
Microsoft Terminal Services (often referred to by the name of the protocol it uses, Remote Desktop Protocol, or RDP) is the final obvious choice of technology. Terminal Services provides the "logical" (versus "physical") communications between Mira's mobile display and the host PC. Terminal Services can deliver the Windows XP desktop to almost any client device that has a screen and an input method (keyboard, pen or mouse) - such as Mira.
Terminal Services: the Key to Mira
Terminal Services was originally created in 1997 as a component of the NT-4 Server OS. It has matured substantially since then. Windows XP Pro now uses it to provide remote trouble-shooting capability, where one PC can view and control the screen of another PC. You can even use Terminal Services on a Pocket PC 2002 device to log on to a remote PC and display a Windows 2000 or XP desktop on the Pocket PC screen. In the enterprise, products that use Terminal Services are typically referred to as "thin clients" (see the sidebar on "Thin Clients" for more information).
When a user runs an application using Terminal Server, only the keyboard, pen, mouse and display information are transmitted over the wireless link between the "terminal" (Mira, in this case) and the host PC. This communication is quite efficient, since only the pixels that have changed (screen updates) are transmitted, not entire screen images. Since Terminal Services was originally designed to work acceptably over 28.8 Kbps modem links, running it over WiFi (802.11b) wireless at 11 Mbps provides more than enough speed.
RDP has been tweaked slightly for use in Mira. The improvements include improved connection management (e.g., to allow losing the wireless signal for a fraction of a second without dropping the connection to the PC), simplification of automatic reconnection (e.g., when you walk into and out of an area without wireless coverage in your house), and improved audio and video performance.
Only One Mira
In a server environment, each Terminal Services user sees only their individual session, independent of any other client session. Literally hundreds of sessions can exist simultaneously. The server operating system transparently manages the multiple user sessions. In the current Windows XP environment, Terminal Services is single-user. This means that only one Mira can be used at a time. This is one of the two most significant limitations of Mira V1. If your Mira is the main display, when you undock it and go to another room in the house, you're still the only user. If your Mira is a mobile monitor, the main monitor is locked out whenever you use the mobile monitor (this is similar to the way Remote Desktop works today in Windows XP Pro). There can only be one user on a PC today, so only one Mira can be used at a time.
Microsoft speaks with different voices about this limitation. Aubrey Edwards said that Microsoft's research clearly indicated that mobility is more important than concurrency (allowing multiple simultaneous users). On the other hand, in the question-and-answer session after one of his speeches at CeBIT, Steve Ballmer, President and CEO of Microsoft, said, "The [Mira] concept doesn't make sense [without concurrency], so that will be a version 2 feature."
Rick Merritt, writing about WinHEC in EE Times, reported that "a senior engineer with one OEM said his company would not make Mira-enabled devices because in their first iteration a user cannot access a home PC and the Mira display at the same time."
Another dissenter, Jack Schofield, writing in The Guardian, chimed in with "[You] can't use a remote Mira tablet while another member of the family is hogging the desktop PC... You would be better off buying a cheap notebook PC instead [of a Mira]."
The second most significant limitation of Mira V1 is that Terminal Services (RDP) can't handle full-motion video (or anything that requires fast refresh). This means you can't sit on the couch in the living room with your Mira main monitor on the coffee table and watch a DVD movie playing on the PC in the den. (The legal issue of whether you can transmit the contents of a DVD movie to a remote device is an entirely separate issue.) RDP also can't handle any software that requires Direct-X, which means that you can't run 3D games of any kind (even relatively tame 3D simulation games such as The Sims or Monopoly Tycoon). RDP's bandwidth is sufficient for typical small-window streaming video from the Web (at 200 Kbps), but that's about it.
Microsoft minimizes the importance of this limitation. Microsoft's position regarding DVDs is that most families that watch DVDs already have a good viewing setup, usually a big TV in the family room. Micro-soft's position regarding gaming is that most people playing 3D games do so either at a desk (with joysticks or other game controllers, 5.1 surround speakers, etc.), or they use a gaming console such as the X-Box.
As noted earlier, the Mira V1 hardware design is basically the same as a webpad. Click here to see the block diagram of a generic Mira.
CPU The two primary CPU providers for Mira are Intel and National. Mira is shaping up as a battleground for these two vendors. Intel has announced four Mira design wins for their new XScale CPU (AboCom, Philips, Tatung and ViewSonic), while National has announced three Mira design wins for their Geode CPU (DT Research, Tatung and Wyse). Tatung is doing two designs, that's why they're on both lists. At this point it's impossible to predict which CPU will end up in the majority of Mira designs. (See the sidebar on "Intel XScale" for more information on this new CPU.)
LCD As noted elsewhere in this article, Mira V1 LCDs are mostly 8.4" & 10.4" SVGA, and 15" XGA. PC resolution is moving rapidly to XGA, helped along by laptops and LCD monitors, so Mira probably won't stay at SVGA very long. 12.1" XGA may an interesting LCD size for a Mira. Some OEMs may consider using transflective TFT for improved outdoor viewability. Since fewer than 10% of monitors today can physically rotate to portrait mode, screen rotation in Mira is not a major issue - although it may be a good differentiator for an OEM.
Digitizer Most, if not all, of the initial Miras will use resistive (touch) digitizers. Microsoft's thinking on this is that since the Mira is not meant for heavy data input or extensive use of digital ink, the performance of a resistive digitizer is adequate. Actually, if a significant portion of the Mira's use is for web browsing, then an active digitizer (which has hover and a right-click button on the pen) makes more sense. Recognizing this, but unwilling to force the Mira OEMs to incur the cost premium for an active digitizer, Microsoft has implemented both "hover" mode and "right click" mode in the Mira input panel. This works, but having three modes for the digitizer is not very user-friendly.
Video Controller The video controller shown in the block diagram is optional, depending on the CPU selected, the resolution of the LCD, and the desired video performance. It's one of those classic cost/performance/battery-life tradeoffs. The bottom portion of the block diagram shows the dock (base) for a Mira main monitor. It provides standard VGA and DVI inputs, which, after appropriate video processing, are "passed through" to the Mira's LCD. Note that the dock also includes USB ports, which makes sense for both Mira main monitors and mobile monitors (keyboard and mouse connections for the latter). The USB port can also be used to upgrade the Mira software from the PC.
Storage External storage (typically a compact flash slot) on a Mira is not required, but is likely to appear in most products since the incremental hardware cost is very low. If you think of the Mira V1 as just being a screen and an input device, you realize that memory of any kind (internal or external) is almost irrelevant. The user really doesn't care how much memory there is in a Mira because local storage typically won't be used. The user is connected to his PC, so storage is the PC's RAM and disk. The primary reason for Mira's external storage capability is standalone use as an "electronic picture frame."
Battery Achieving sufficient battery life while maintaining light weight may be a challenge for Mira developers. Most webpads today have battery life of around 3 hours, and that's typically with the brightness at medium, the CPU idling most of the time while you're reading web pages, and a light duty cycle on the wireless. Constantly running Terminal Services to reproduce the frequently changing screen of a PC, along with a higher duty cycle on the wireless, is likely to use more power. Screen brightness may be even more of a problem, since the backlight is the largest consumer of power in the Mira. A typical desktop LCD monitor has a brightness of around 250 nits, a typical laptop is 150 nits, and webpads are typically 100 nits or less. It remains to be seen what combination of brightness and battery life the market will accept in a Mira device.
What Will Mira Cost?
Keith White, Senior Director of Marketing and Business Development in Microsoft's Embedded Appliance and Platform Group, has been widely quoted in the press as saying that Miras will cost in the range of $500 to $800.
The chart below shows a simplified breakdown of an estimated hardware bill of materials (BOM) cost for a typical Mira mobile monitor.
Starting with the $330 total from the chart and adding 10% for the ODM's profit margin, then multiplying by 1.5 to account for the OEM's total distribution cost and margin produces a forecasted minimum street price of $545 for a Mira mobile monitor. This must be somewhat close to reality, since more than one of Microsoft's Mira partners told the author that achieving a $499 street price for a 10.4" mobile monitor will be a difficult challenge.
|10.4" SVGA LCD
|WiFi (802.11b) wireless
|3-cell Li-ion battery
|32 MB flash memory
|64 MB SDRAM memory
|Resistive digitizer panel
In a story published in EE Times, Mike Iannitti from Intel said that he expects the Mira hardware to add no more than $200 or $300 to the price of a regular LCD monitor.
Using the data from the chart above but eliminating the LCD and the housing (which are already accounted for in an LCD monitor) yields a cost adder of $180. Applying the same calculation as above for the mobile monitor produces a forecasted minimum adder of $297 for a main monitor, right at the upper limit of Mike Iannitti's $200 - $300 range. The average street price of a name-brand 15" LCD monitor as of May 2002 is around $400. Adding the $297 Mira hardware to the $400 monitor produces a forecasted minimum street price of around $700 for a 15" Mira main monitor, within Keith White's $500 - $800 range.
What price point would cause the Mira mobile monitors to fly off the shelf? Probably $299. This seems to be a magic price point for consumer electronics in general. Microsoft seems to agree. In a video interview on CNET News.com, Keith White said "The [Mira mobile monitor] price points have to come down to a very reasonable $200 to $500 range [instead of $500 to $800] before they'll really be widely accepted."
What would the installed cost of a Mira mobile monitor be? It depends on the buyer's starting point. If the user already has a WiFi (802.11b) wireless network in the house and is already running XP Professional, then the installed cost would be only $500. According to Aubrey Edwards, the initial target market for Mira V1 is "early adopters and technical enthusiasts," so this is the most probable scenario. Forecasting the installed cost for a user without wireless and with XP Home isn't possible yet, since as noted above, Microsoft hasn't decided how they're going to minimize the upgrade cost from XP Home to XP Professional.
Adding broadband Internet access (about $50 per month with a rented cable modem) is not required for a Mira, but it would make the user experience a lot better when browsing the web on the couch.
As usual, Microsoft has assembled a group of companies who have agreed to kick-start the Mira program. Table 2 lists all the players, along with their business model (OEM/ODM), location and the author's comments. It's interesting to note that of the companies who have announced they're developing Mira monitors, 58% of them are also developing Tablet PCs, 42% of them build or sell webpads, and 25% of them do both webpads and Tablet PCs. It's also interesting to note the total absence of all of the Tier-1 PC OEMs: Compaq, Dell, Gateway, HP and IBM. Actually, it's not surprising. Mira is, after all, a form of pen tablet computer, and you know how most of the Tier-1 OEMs feel about pen tablets!
As of May 2002, eight Mira prototypes or mockups have been shown in various public forums. See Table 3 for summary specifications on these prototypes. Some of the specs are shown as "ND" (not disclosed) because it's a little too early for some of the OEMs (and Microsoft) to have all the details nailed down.
DT Research This 8.4" prototype, first shown at CeBIT, is based on the existing DT Research WebDT 380 webpad. DT Research has been building webpads and thin clients for several years, and they have a broad range of products in this category. Developing one or more Miras is a natural and obvious direction for them.
Philips Philips has shown two Mira prototypes, both of which appear to be based on new development. The first, a working 10.4" mobile monitor, was shown at CeBIT. Multiple photos of this prototype are available on the Philips website (see Table 4 for the URL). The second, a 15" main monitor mockup, was shown at WinHEC. It's quite elegant in appearance, and quite thin. It would look great on the coffee table.
Tatung This 10.4" prototype, first shown at CeBIT, is based on the existing Tatung TWN-5213-CU webpad. The really unique aspects of this webpad are that it can withstand at least a 5-foot drop onto carpeted concrete, and it's splash proof. Tatung demonstrated the shock resistance several times during WinHEC by dropping it from shoulder height onto carpeted concrete (the typical trade show aisle). Tatung's mobile Mira should be very attractive to consumers who want to use it in the kitchen or other PC-hostile locations.
TriGem This 8.4" prototype, first shown at WinHEC, is the result of new development. It's a stunner in terms of size and weight. It's incredibly thin - only 0.67 inches, and at only 1.4 pounds, holding it is effortless. TriGem is a Korean ODM in a joint venture with SOTEC, a Japanese computer OEM. As a result, the prototype was labeled with the SOTEC brand. SOTEC, on the other hand, has been identified by Microsoft as only building "Mira-enabled PCs" (a Windows XP Pro PC with integrated WiFi wireless), not Mira monitors, so it's unclear who will finally brand this really cool product.
ViewSonic ViewSonic has shown two Mira-related products. The first, a prototype 15" main monitor, is the poster-child prototype. It was in the initial Mira announcement at CES, it appears in Microsoft's Mira concept video, and Bill Gates is holding it in the Mira publicity photos. The second product isn't a prototype, it's a real product. Called the AirPanel 100, it's a "pre-Mira" wireless monitor product based on ViewSonic's current webpad, the ViewPad 100. According to Marc McConnaughey, ViewSonic's Senior Vice President of Advanced Technologies, the AirPanel 100 was developed to explore the concept and establish the legitimacy of the wireless monitor. It's a form of market development. ViewSonic is more aggressive and quicker-moving than many OEMs; quickly bringing a wireless monitor product to market for the know-ledge to be gained from it is typical of their style.
Wyse Technology This 15" prototype, first shown at CeBIT, is based on the existing Wyse 3630LE Winterm (Windows-based terminal). Unlike any of the other prototypes, this one is non-mobile. It's in a form factor that hasn't been mentioned so far in this article - Microsoft calls it a "remote station."
Mira Version 2 (V2)
Mira V2 is targeted to include concurrency (multiple simultaneous users) and streaming AV (audio-visual) support. According to Aubrey Edwards, Microsoft's desire is to ship a new version of Mira every year in time for Christmas. However, Microsoft never commits to a V2 date until V1 is out the door, so it is unknown if the 2003 Mira will be V1.5 or V2. Some other areas for possible Mira enhancements in V2 include the ability to use the product away from the home (e.g., at a public wireless hotspot), more support for standalone applications, enhanced audio input and improved administration.
Additional Form Factors
Concurrency may change the Mira usage picture substantially. In addition to enabling the use of multiple mobile monitors simultaneously anywhere in the house, it allows additional stationary Miras to be located (for example) in the kids' bedrooms. Concurrency changes the single-user home PC into a "residential server", without all the complexity of a true server operating system. (The licensing issue of whether multiple users can share a single copy of an application on the PC is an entirely separate issue.) Microsoft has already proposed two additional Mira form factors that could be argued only make sense with concurrency.
The first is called a "remote station." It's basically a 15" desktop LCD monitor with the Mira hardware integrated inside (without a touch screen). Wyse already makes a very similar product designed for use on wired networks, the Winterm 3630LE. Street price of this product as of May 2002 is around $1,150. Jeff McNaught, Vice-President of Market Strategy at Wyse Technology, says that his target for the Mira version of this product is less than $1,000.
The second proposed form factor is called a "remote terminal." This is simply the Mira hardware in a small box with no display and no battery. It's meant to be used with new or existing monitors and keyboards. Again Wyse Technology already makes a very similar product designed for use on wired networks, the Winterm 3200LE. Street price of this product as of May 2002 is around $350. Jeff McNaught says that his target for the Mira version of this product is less than $300.
If you add the $300 for the Mira version of the 3200LE to the current $400 average street price of a name-brand 15" LCD monitor, and throw in $50 for a good keyboard and mouse, the total is $750. Why not buy a second PC for the same money? The answer's the same as above. It depends on what your goals are for home computing, and how much money, time and effort you want to spend managing multiple home computers.
Finally, going one step further, Microsoft proposes that Mira hardware could be embedded in a flat-screen TV or in a presentation projector. In both cases, the devices can be considered displays in a different form-factor. Adding Mira hardware turns them into wireless displays. This may be a case of technology looking for a problem to solve, but it's an interesting idea.
The second major enhancement in Mira V2 is audio-visual (AV) streaming. This is the ability to view full-motion video and listen to high-quality audio on the Mira, as well as play 3D games. AV streaming is a fundamental part of Microsoft's Connected Home vision (see the "Connected Home" sidebar for more information). Adding AV streaming to a Mira generally means adding an MPEG decoder chip (DSP), which adds cost.
Alternatively, instead of adding another chip, it's possible to include support for AV streaming in a new CPU. At WinHEC, ATI (one of the two top vendors of video controllers) announced a new, highly integrated, low-cost "super CPU" called Xileon. It includes both a 300 MHz MIPS CPU (supported by Windows CE .Net) and a complete video processor that handles AV streaming (MPEG-2), Direct-X/3D graphics, dual display with picture-in-picture, TV output, etc. This super-CPU could be used as the core of a Mira V2 device, or of an "AV node" device.
Mira V1's primary advantage is mobility. It extends the use of a home PC to any room, while avoiding the hassles of managing multiple computers. For some home PC owners, this may be a substantial advantage. The primary challenge that Microsoft and the Mira OEMs face is the out-of-box-experience. Installing and configuring the WiFi wireless (and possibly a broadband connection) must be made foolproof and extremely simple. The two main limitations of Mira V1 are that only one Mira can be used at a time, and that it doesn't support full-motion video or 3D games. Microsoft intends to eliminate both of these limitations in Mira V2. Another significant limitation of Mira V1 is that it requires XP Professional on the PC; Microsoft is working on ways of reducing the cost impact of upgrading from XP Home. Mira will cost between $500 and $800, with mobile monitors (8.4" and 10.4") at the lower end and main monitors (15") at the upper end. Overall, Mira V1 is a good start on a multi-year development program. Unless the concept totally bombs in 2002, we can look forward to increasingly capable new Miras every Christmas. - -Geoff Walker
Based in Silicon Valley, Geoff Walker is Pen Computing Magazine's Technology Editor and a consultant with Walker Mobile. Geoff,
who hovers on the border between marketing and engineering, is currently focused
on pen-enabled mobile products. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.