Microsoft struggles to make MIRA look as good as Tablet

by Guy Kewney | posted on 29 November 2002

We've seen the Tablet PC, and Windows XP Tablet Edition; nice, if a bit pricey (most people said). Now, we have a launch date of Jan 8th for Smart Display. It looks like it costs the same amount. It can't do anything like as much. Why is Microsoft persisting with it? Market research, we suspect ...

Guy Kewney

The first Smart Display is a simple 10-inch LCD monitor which you can carry around the office or the house, and write on. It will ship on January 8th, from Viewsonic, and it will cost $999.

Both Microsoft and Viewsonic are really excited about this; so is Philips which will follow Viewsonic within three months, launching a rather smarter and more beautiful 15-inch LCD monitor which, equally, can be picked up off its stand, and carried around like a portable computer.

<1/> Viewsonic MIRA, RM Tablet, and Philips keyboard ...

Nobody knows what the Philips product will cost; not even Philips. But the 15-inch display alone probably costs Philips around £600 - it's a safe bet that when you add the wireless perspex-surrounded keyboard, the 802.11b technology, the audio, the Windows CE processor and batteries and the margins for all concerned, this will come onto the market closer to £2,000 than £1,000.

Inside it, you get Windows CE. You get a protocol which lets you look "through" the Smart Display to your own PC, for which this becomes the primary display - even when you pick the display up and carry it around. In the case of the Viewsonic, it's a tablet-sized machine you can hold on your arm; the Philips is a bit bigger and is probably easier to prop onto a desk. You can use the touch-sensitive screen to write - it even recognises script (the same software you find in a PocketPC) or you can connect a keyboard. There's even the option of an on-screen keyboard - touch-sensitive pads displayed in qwerty format.

For roughly the same sort of money, however, Microsoft has persuaded a lot more people - including Viewsonic, as it happens - to design a Tablet PC. It too will give you at 10-inch display more or less, at the same 1024 by 768 resolution. Most of them - from Acer, Toshiba, HP and so on - will include a keyboard and will, in most respects, be a modern Notebook PC. It will also do handwriting recognition - not just letters - and it will accept "ink" and store it, and search through it for recogniseable text; and it is a fast Pentium III level processor and a huge disk and has Windows XP on it.

The question Microsoft has to answer, is: "Why would I buy a Smart Display, when for rather similar money, I can get a full PC with Windows XP on it?

Today, in London, Microsoft produced its biggest marketing guns to persuade journalists, at least, that the first release of Smart Displays was worth taking seriously, and found itself facing considerable scepticism.

"They are separate markets," insisted Megan Kidd, product manager of Microsoft's Embedded and Appliance Platforms group. The Tablet is for people who want a complete PC; the Smart Display is for people who are innovators, early adopters, who want a new display, but want to be freed from the ties that keep them at their desk."

Philips product manager Dawn Stockell

<1/> Dawn Stockell and the Philips MIRA smart display

demonstrated the Philips 15-inch screen - easily the equal of any other 15-inch TFT, but with the advantage of a touch-sensitive screen, and a magnetically attached wireless keyboard. It uses the standard WiFi (802.11b) standard wireless link to the home PC when you pull it off its stand. It is, however, almost indistinguishable from an unusually large notebook PC in size and appearance - except that it ceases to do anything useful it you take it out the office.

The logic, as Microsoft sees it, is that "early adopters" are those who don't really mind the price, as long as they get something new, which their peers don't have. A new 15 inch TFT would be worth buying, if they could astonish their friends by picking it off their desk and moving into a meeting room. A new 10-inch TFT display would be equally amazing if you could take it out the "den" where the PC is, and use it in the kitchen.

Most visitors were politely sceptical.

Our view: this is a test-bed. There are things, we suspect, which are obviously wrong with the design; for example, it doesn't do "ink" - not even if you link it to another Tablet XP machine to run it - because it doesn't have the same sophisticated electro-sensitive display that Tablet PCs have. Also, its wireless link it too slow.

When - some time in 2003 - it has an 802.11a wireless running at 50 megabits, and it is possible to view movies on it, rather than just listen to music, and when it is transparent to XP ink, and when it costs around half what a Tablet PC costs, it could well be successful. Right now, it's a market research project.

<1/> RM's school tablet next to Viewsonic's Smart Display