Smart Display: The Best Idea Microsoft Should Nix

While the case for functionality is strong indeed for Microsoft's Smart Display platform, Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin concludes that the company should throw in the towel on the product in favor of more off-the-shelf hardware.

Following the introduction of ViewSonics Airpanel line in January, Philips Electronics recently released the DesXcape 150DM, the second and far harder-to-pronounce major product for the U.S. market based on Microsofts Smart Display platform. Founded on Windows CE and aimed at the home market, a Smart Display provides a tablet form factor that connects wirelessly to a PC and lets you use virtually all of your applications and data. You can also stream music.

Smart Displays are theoretically less of a hassle than laptops assuming you already have a desktop PC at home and dont travel much, since you dont have to worry about installing applications or synchronizing data. They can also be used as a secondary LCD monitor. Microsoft refers to the product family as the evolution of the monitor, but its probably better to think of the Smart Display as a remote control for your desktop PC. By logging in remotely, though, you avoid all the clutter and resolution dependence of screen-sharing products like the very useful GoToMyPC.

Im a big fan of the Smart Display concept. In fact, I find its purpose more compelling than Microsofts more successful tablet effort, Tablet PC. For anyone whos ever wanted to catch up on some e-mail in bed, or surf along a companion Web site while watching TV. Smart Displays provide a good solution. After all, they are based on the proven idea of the thin client, and use the same protocol that Microsofts Terminal Services thin clients use in the enterprise.

However, Smart Displays are not only expensive when compared to laptops that offer greater standalone functionality, but can easily be three times as expensive as the new desktop PC that it is intended to augment. This is no doubt due to both the high raw component costs as well as the low-volume shipments, which has pushed starting prices of Smart Displays close to $1,000. Compounding the price problem, Microsofts rollout of the Tablet PC at roughly the same time as the Smart Display platform has certainly left the impression that the latter is the red-headed stepchild of tablet initiatives at the company.

Perhaps history is repeating itself. Microsoft had this exact problem in 1999 with another Windows CE device—the "Jupiter" class of Handheld PCs such as the HP Jornada 800 and the Compaq Aero 8000. Improving upon the original generation of clamshell handheld devices, the Handheld PC Pro boasted larger screens and full-sized keyboards. Unfortunately, this put the Windows CE-based computers into direct competition with laptops that didnt cost much more. Ultimately, the longer battery life of the "Lapheld" couldnt overcome the flexibility of the laptops, and nowadays some laptops can approach the day-long battery performance these products had. Although NEC recently released a Handheld PC, it may be the last of its kind as Microsoft has removed all references to the device class on its Windows CE Web site.

Now, Microsoft is even touting some of the same benefits for Smart Display as it did for the Handheld PC Pro, such as shorter startup time. Unfortunately, as before, the Smart Display cant compete with its Windows XP-based cousins.

What Microsoft should do is put a limited version of the Terminal Services already included with Windows XP Pro into Windows XP Home Edition. Ever cheaper Tablet PCs can serve as clients. Users on a budget could even purchase a second desktop (or use an older PC) for their bedroom and use a wired connection back to their office PC. The Smart Display team has long acknowledged that its primary competition is a second PC.

Sorry to say for Microsoft, the software approach wont result in a lot of incremental revenue (unless it can somehow roll it into a Plus pack)—this is one of those times when the software approach simply provides a better price-performance ratio than hardware. The Smart Display is one tablet that looks like its going to get swallowed.

Would you buy a Smart Display if it were less expensive, a "lite" terminal server to compute remotely at home, or dispense with the whole thing and just buy a laptop? E-mail me.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

More from Ross Rubin: