Smart Displays - good riddance to dumb technology

What killed Microsoft's Smart Display? It certainly was not the 'current state of the LCD market', as Microsoft claims

I hate to say I told you so, but ever since the first details emerged of Microsoft's Smart Display technology (originally code-named Mira), we have been distinctly unimpressed. Our derision only increased when we got our hands on a device. Our technology editor Rupert Goodwins did his best to like what should have been a gorgeous gadget, but regretfully concluded that a smart display was the silicon equivalent of a suppository.

The concept of the smart display itself is not bad. The execution of that concept, which is embodied in Microsoft's Smart Display software, was terrible. In private, hardware manufacturers acknowledged the limitations of the software and tried their best to work with it, but even those best efforts were not enough to blunt the Goodwins pen.

Microsoft blames the failure of the Smart Display experiment on the state of the LCD market, which given the ever-plummeting prices of LCD monitors is a bit like Britney Spears saying she'd have stayed married if it wasn't for the divorce rate. No, the problem with smart displays always lay in the licensing.

Unlike tablet PCs, which are a self-contained computer, 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.

The displays came in two types: those which could be used as either a desktop monitor or a portable tablet, and those which only functioned as a remote terminal. ViewSonic's 15-inch Airpanel V150, which is still available, doubles as a monitor and a remote terminal, while the 10.4-inch Airpanel V110 can only be used remotely.

The trouble came when using the displays in this remote capacity. When the smart display was controlling the computer, the base computer was locked and could not be used by another person.

Server versions of Windows support multiple, simultaneous users, but this feature was disabled in desktop versions of Windows XP for licensing reasons. Under normal desktop software licences, two users cannot run an application at the same time on the same computer. Desktop flavours of Windows XP at the time did support multiple users, but they could not be logged in at the same time.

A year ago, Microsoft's marketing machine would rather we glossed over such issues. Articles that ZDNet UK printed were routinely followed by phone calls from the PR company handling this particular technology, offering further briefings to "explain" Smart Display technology just one more time. The logic went that smart displays simply enabled the owner of a PC to use that PC from elsewhere in a building, and so licensing really was not an issue. Honest. Well, try explaining that to someone who has just spent £1,000-plus on a smart display (complete with another Microsoft operating system, albeit Windows CE-based), only to find that it locked up their main PC.

In the end, even Microsoft's spin machine ran out of revs on this one. In May last year, MS said it would retool its Windows XP operating system so that two people could run applications on the same machine concurrently. Aside from any other issues, this was seen as an important step toward the company's goal of transforming the PC into a home entertainment centre. And so Service Pack 2 of Windows XP will, we are given to believe, let one person manipulate applications via the main PC's keyboard while another person surfed the Internet on the same computer via a smart display.

But Windows XP SP2 is not slated for release until the summer of 2004 -- way too late to save the smart display. Even if it had been available earlier, I suspect, the damage would already have been done: smart displays were always known above all else for their dumb licensing problems.

Its always sad to see a new technology bite the dust, but sometimes it just has to happen. And, in this particular instance, I can't help feeling a churlish satisfaction in seeing Microsoft's licensing regime come back and bite it in the arse.