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Just A Thought - Smart Display? If Apple Does it, Yes!

by , 10:00 AM EDT, October 16th, 2002

A company the size of Microsoft is bound to have all sorts of problems but it is just as likely that they will have a good idea every once in a while. One such idea that looks good, at least on paper, is the "Smart Display," a Win CE based terminal that allows you to use your computer while sitting on the deck slurping a hard lemonade, for instance.

Such a terminal would be connected wirelessly and would be a great alternative to being forced to sit in a particular spot to use your computer but would not be as costly as buying a laptop. A smart display could serve as a remote 'live' picture frame when not in use, getting slide-show updates from your computer and displaying them, or it could give up-to-the-minute news and weather updates, flag you when you have new e-mail, or be a great instant messaging terminal. It really is a good idea and it has been suggested that Apple should do something similar here at TMO several times. I know I've suggested it at least twice.

There's a C|NET News article about MS's smart display efforts and after reading it, it becomes obvious that while an idea may look good on paper, in real life it can be anything but a good idea. According the C|Net article, MS is running into problems with it's display, forcing them to push the release date to the 1st quarter of 2003.

OK, problems happen, but what's interesting is how MS is actually implementing this display. The article says that only one display can be used at a time. Huh? That makes no sense! Why wouldn't you make a device that would allow several displays to connect so that Mom can chat with her sister, Dad can buy new golf clubs, and little Billy can surf the comic book sites, each using his or her own display and session on the computer? Why limit this remote display to just one session? I can think of several reasons MS would do such a silly thing, and all of them involve $, money, and more $.

For one thing, MS may be wanting to appease PC makers: If MS allowed people to have multiple displays while only using one PC then sales of PCs may suffer because people would not need to buy more boxes, just more displays. PC makers lose $ and MS shoots itself in the foot in the process.

The biggest reason I believe MS is having such a problem with this remote terminal setup, however, is licensing. If history is any sort of guide, MS will want to charge you for each terminal and the software (Mira it's called) that supports it. If possible, the company will make it a yearly software rental fee, too. The challenge for a company that operates like Microsoft is not how to implement the device, but how to make sure its limited to Windows, and how to make it so that the company can continue to collect revenue from the product after the point of sale.

On competing platforms, like Linux and OS X, remote terminal services are free or, in the case of OS X's Remote Desktop, a reasonable pricing structure exists, though not necessarily for home use (10 clients for $299, unlimited for $499). The potential for making boat-loads of money through licensing is there, but MS is currently reeling from other licensing issues dealing with XP and the corporate world, and people are already annoyed with XP's licensing and built-in ads, so you'd think they wouldn't want to add to that misery.

Here's the thing: on other platforms, like OS X and Linux, remote desktop capabilities have been a built-in capability for years and years. Being able to login and use a machine remotely, as with telnet or secure shell commands, is as much a part of UNIX, including Mac OS X, as the command line. Microsoft's attempt to 'consumerize' the capability is a good idea, but their attempts to 'Redmondize' the capability will diminish it greatly.

Of course, Apple could step in and show the company how it should be done. It's not like Apple doesn't have the infrastructure; Bluetooth and 802.11 makes the wireless part real, Rendezvous makes it simple to add any device, including cool wireless terminals, to a network for real plug-n-play action, and I can't believe Apple couldn't figure out a way to make Remote Desktop consumer friendly. The terminal itself may be the only hard part: it would have to be cool looking, extremely functional, even when not in use, and simple, but it would also have to have all the security concerns addressed as well. Still, if anyone can pull it off with finesse, Apple can, and such a device would certainly boost OS X sales and use.

The C|Net article mentions that MS will miss the Christmas buying season but isn't too worried about it. Maybe, but Apple could certainly execute a cool coup by having a remote terminal product ready before December. Odds are that Apple is not working on a terminal device but, if they are, the next few months will get really interesting.

Vern Seward is a frustrated writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

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