CEBIT – Manufacturers watch Microsoft’s Mira move

Is Microsoft Corp.’s Mira technology the kick start the handheld Internet appliance market needs?

Mira devices (the codename comes from the Spanish for “to watch”) are detachable wireless monitors that can be used up to 100 meters from a PC, letting users work in any room around the house. At the CeBIT trade show in Hanover, Germany, this week, Microsoft announced four new partners that will make display devices based on the Mira design. Royal Philips Electronics NV and LG Electronics Inc. are both building devices while TriGem Computer Inc. of Korea and Tatung Co. of Taiwan will develop designs for other companies to manufacture, Microsoft said.

Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman and chief software architect, launched the Mira technology at a keynote speech on the eve of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January

Mira devices use 802.11b wireless technology and the RDP (remote desktop protocol) software built into both Windows XP and CE to communicate and have rechargeable batteries that will last for 4 to 6 hours before having to be recharged in the monitor’s cradle, said Todd Warren, general manager of Microsoft’s embedded and appliance platform group.

Mira monitors are principally targeted at the consumer market, said Warren.

“Where the tablet PC is the evolution of the laptop, Mira devices are the evolution of the monitor,” he said.

Microsoft promotional videos show the devices being used around a home, to view weather forecasts, check e-mail and read the news in the bathroom. Warren acknowledges that they are likely to get lost and says manufacturers have been considering possible ways of tracking the products from the main PC, such as making them beep until found.

Philips has produced prototype 10.4-inch and 15-inch monitors, plus a wireless keyboard to work with the latter. Tatung has developed a rugged, waterproof version, presumably for use in the bathroom or garden.

Warren also suggested that flat-screen TVs could include Mira technology and act as monitors when needed.

Mira monitors will not be able to show movies or television because they do not have enough CPU (central processing unit) power for streaming video, but there are plans to include that capability in later versions, Warren said.

National Semiconductor’s President and Chief Executive Officer Brian Halla described the Mira as being like a Web pad or Internet appliance, “a thin client for the home using a PC as a server.”

Several of the prototype Mira monitors contain National Semiconductor Corp.’s Geode processors, including the Tatung product and another from Wyse Technology Inc.

Halla says he hopes the Microsoft push will also provide a “valuable nudge” to the market for thin client terminals, which has been slow to take off.

“There is a tremendous amount of interest in Mira from all the (hardware makers) we work with,” Halla said. “Almost everyone (in the industry) is waiting to see what happens,” he said.

However, so far manufacturers have gone no further than the prototype stage because “it is very expensive to be the lead runner on it (and its success) depends on how much weight Microsoft puts behind it,” he said.

The Mira presence at CeBIT would suggest that Microsoft intends to put serious weight into promoting the technology. Other partners already announced include National Semiconductor, Fujitsu Ltd, Intel Corp., NEC Corp., Matsushita Electronic Corp., Sotec Corp., ViewSonic Corp. and Wyse Technology.

The low price of LCDs (liquid crystal displays) and the proliferation of wireless will help boost the Mira technology, said Don Macleod, National Semiconductor chief operating officer. Microsoft has been pushing the manufacturing base in Asia to take it on, he says.

Perhaps, says Halla, the less successful Internet appliances we have seen were necessary to try the concept and the market will now be ready.

Microsoft expects Mira monitors to be available by Christmas 2002 at around US$400, Warren said.