Bill Gates yesterday unveiled two new technologies, Freestyle and Mira, designed to beef up the capabilities of the PC - and hence, Windows XP - in the home. Both are intended to let users wander around the room or house while controlling their PC; Freestyle is categorised as a set of extensions to XP, while Mira is to all intents and purposes a CE-based thin client.
Both Freestyle and Mira are scheduled to ship later this year, as is another product intended to let you wander around controlling stuff, the Tablet PC. Freestyle seems essentially to be a mechanism for extending the consumer PC into a combo media centre, jukebox and TV, so is being supported by consumer PC manufacturers such as HP, NEC and Samsung. It doesn't sound like rocket science, but will include a new user interface (where have we heard that one before?) and something that could be as technically unchallenging as a remote control unit. From a product positioning point of view it sounds fairly shrewd, given that Tablets are going to be relatively pricey items, and it therefore makes sense for Microsoft to try to fill the gap at the bargain basement end.
There do however seem to be some ominous-sounding limitations to Freestyle. Microsoft says it's for "digital media enthusiasts and consumers such as teens, college students and small-apartment dwellers who already enjoy their PC in their main living area," so we would appear not to be talking 802.11 here. We may indeed be talking more about what wireless keyboards did next.
Mira is somewhat more ambitious, and appears to slot in between Freestyle and the Tablet PC. It's described as a "new set of Windows CE.NET-based technologies," and the bottom line is that it enables smart flat panel displays which you can carry around and use for browsing and control purposes. These could include PC display units that you can pull out and plug in, depending on whether you want to sit at the PC or crash on the sofa. Companies working with Microsoft here include Intel, Natsemi, ViewSonic and Wyse, and again products are due for the end of this year.
Confusingly, Microsoft says Mira devices could also be "a large digital television that presents a complete Windows XP experience." Presumably this must be a CE-based TV running as a thin client for a WinXP PC elsewhere, and controlled by Freestyle. Or a wireless keyboard. Or something.
Neither technology (shall we start calling them concepts instead now?) is particularly clever, and what they have in common is that they are intended to support Microsoft's plans to perpuetuate the PC in the home, pitching it as the centre of entertainment, home productivity and home control and monitoring activities. It is not however particularly clear why people should actually need this. A portable webpad type device can connect to the internet perfectly happily via a wireless broadband gateway without a PC having to get in the way, so Freestyle and Mira (particularly Mira) are only important for as long as the PC is in itself a desirable piece of kit for the home.
Microsoft has so far been fairly successful in perpetuating its role as such, and quite probably will be able to stretch its life some more with these latest repackagings. It should also be taken into account that non-PC web appliances have so far largely bombed, so the opposition isn't really there. But can this go on forever? ®