The company has lined up several manufacturers to make the displays, which cost from $999 (£640), but admits that the first iteration of the technology has limitations, and is aimed at early adopters.
In London last Thursday to show off displays from ViewSonic and Philips, Microsoft product manager Megan Kidd predicted that smart displays would be used in much the same way as cordless phones. "It lets you take your monitor and connect back to your PC from a more relaxed setting in the home," she said.
Philips and ViewSonic models will be available in the US beginning 8 January, and will launch in Europe sometime in the first quarter of 2003. NEC and Fujitsu are making smart displays for Japan, and TriGem Computer and Tatung have signed on to create display designs for other manufacturers.
The displays come in two types: those which can be used as either a desktop monitor or a portable tablet, and those which only function as a remote terminal. Unlike the recently-launched tablet PC, which is a self-contained computer, the smart displays have no local storage and can only be used to interact with a computer located elsewhere.
When undocked, they use integrated 802.11b and Microsoft's Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), a feature found in Windows XP Professional, to connect to the base computer. The docking station has a USB connector to the display and a VGA connection to the PC, allowing it to function as an ordinary monitor.
ViewSonic's 15-inch Airpanel V150, for example, doubles as a monitor and a remote terminal, while the 10.4-inch Airpanel V110 can only be used remotely. The V110 will sell for $999 (about £640) and the V150 for $1,299. Microsoft also showed a Philips model with a wireless keyboard that fits over the screen when not in use.
Kidd demonstrated the Airpanel V100 model, but did not show the process of switching back and forth between the 802.11b connection and the dock. When turned on, the display shows a login screen, which also provides access to locally-stored settings, such as whether sound should be piped through to the display or left on the base PC's speakers. From the login screen, a user can access any PC set up to connect to the smart display, so that, for example, the display could be used to control one PC at home and a different one at work.
When the smart display is controlling the computer, the base computer is locked and cannot be used by another person, Kidd said. Server versions of Windows support multiple, simultaneous users, but this feature has been disabled in desktop versions of Windows XP for licensing reasons, according to Kidd. Under normal desktop software licences, two users cannot run an application at the same time on the same computer. Desktop flavours of Windows XP do support multiple users, but they cannot be logged in at the same time.
Kidd admitted that this limitation could confuse some mainstream consumers. "Whenever you introduce a new product, some education is necessary," she said. She said that Microsoft might be able to solve the multiple-user problem in future editions of the device.
Another, more serious problem is that the device is not capable of displaying video, because of limitations in RDP. Kidd said that Microsoft was working on improvements to RDP that would increase bandwidth enough to allow video to be played. She also said that the hardware would need to be upgraded to use the faster 802.11a standard, although other manufacturers have demonstrated full-motion video playing over an 802.11b connection. The hardware upgrade would require consumers to buy a completely new unit, Kidd said.
Music does not face the same bandwidth problems but the Airpanel V100's built-in speaker is not of high enough quality to listen to music. It does, however, have a port for headphones.
In general the device's responsiveness seemed good, reacting snappily to taps with a stylus or fingertip, although a slight lag was noticeable when drawing large windows. Kidd said that no manufacturers are currently planning to make a passive display of the sort used in the Tablet PC, which could reduce prices.
The smart displays were originally planned to launch before Christmas, but in October the plans were delayed. Kidd said that this was merely to carry out further hardware and software fine-tuning. "We were never date-driven with this product," she said. "This is aimed at tech enthusiasts, whose purchases are not tied to the holidays."
She said that prices are probably too high for mainstream adopters at the moment, but said that they would come down along with the prices of other LCD components.