• United States

Beware the dumb network

Jan 27, 20034 mins
MicrosoftRoutersTablet PCs

Smart Display technology blurs the line between work and fun

In a moment of déjà vu, Microsoft unveiled the first Smart Display products at the Consumer Electronics Show recently. Powered by the company’s “Mira” software (a play on mirror, I guess), Smart Displays are detachable LCD panels with an 802.11b wireless adapter and the same touch-screen technology built into Tablet PCs.

Similarly, Microsoft and its partners launched the second generation of Tablet PCs, driven by the new Tablet PC operating system, at Comdex last fall. Tablets and Smart Displays may look alike, but Tablets are full-blown portable computers with handwriting recognition capability. When debuted, Microsoft positioned Tablets for the enterprise horizontal market, envisioning “corridor warriors” would carry them around to meetings. But it looks like Tablets will find success in vertical industries such as healthcare and manufacturing instead.

The Smart Display, on the other hand, is targeted to consumers. With it, you can access your desktop PC from anywhere in the house (assuming the 802.11b connection will reach). Add a wireless keyboard and mouse, and you can use your PC the same way you would if you were sitting at your desk. The device requires Windows XP, and products include an upgrade. When at rest, the Smart Display lives in a docking station attached to the PC, where it can be used as a primary display.

In essence, the Smart Display creates a “dumb” network of two nodes, display and PC only. A Smart Display user and desktop user can’t access the PC at the same time. Similarly, if you use the Smart Display as your primary monitor, you’d better remember where you left it (among the couch cushions, on the kitchen counter, on the patio), or you won’t be able to access your desktop PC.

Many of the first Smart Display devices will be powered by National Semiconductor’s Geode processor, so I met with the company at CES, hoping to better understand Microsoft’s strategy. Jeff Waters, director of National Semiconductor’s consumer access business unit, says setting up a home network is still too difficult for most consumers, and Smart Displays allow for “idiot-proof sharing” of resources.

Trouble is, consumers aren’t who they used to be. Today, many are casual and even full-time teleworkers. Given the trend for smaller companies and government entities to let employees use their personal computer equipment to work from home, a Smart Display could spell trouble for network managers.

Unfortunately, Waters confirmed my fears with this scenario: Dad wants to let his 5-year-old daughter play a game on his computer, but doesn’t want her sitting at his desk. So instead he loads the game on his computer, and plops her down on the couch with the Smart Display.

Wait a minute. Did Dad just hand over full control of his computer to his kindergartner? With a Smart Display, can’t anyone tripping upon the couch pick up the Smart Display and access all Dad’s files and applications? Smart Displays are attractive, fun-looking devices with straight-shot access to the household desktop system. Can you say, “My daughter deleted my presentation”?

There’s little danger today because the first Smart Displays from Viewsonic and Philips are just too expensive – in the $1,400 range. (Yes, the cost of a good notebook computer or a fabulous desktop.) Waters agrees the value isn’t yet there. But he does think prices could come down to $499 by the 2003 holiday season. Moreover, he says future features will include the ability to share the PC between the desktop monitor and Smart Display, as well as the addition of a DVD player and TV tuner. Also in the works is a sister product, a hardware adapter box that connects to an existing (perhaps cast-off) monitor that lets it access a host PC, in essence creating a clone system for another user.

“The idea is to take all the LCD devices that are already in your home to the PC,” Water says. Now that’s a convergence trend remote network managers need to keep a very close eye on.