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Microsoft's Mira – take smart display, maim, serve

A compelling toy that'll be nice once hacked into a webpad...

It sounds like a great idea - a dinky little LCD display unit you can just pick up and wander around the house with, while at the same time having access to all your stuff on the PC. But the trouble is that the more you look at Microsoft's Mira, the more the device's nagging contradictions and limitations jump up and bite you. The Register missed both Bullhorn Ballmer and Mira at CeBIT, but this afternoon was lucky enough to pick up the Mira roadshow on its own as it swung through London on the return leg.

There are essentially two answers to the Mira 'what is it' question; probably the original, and sensible, answer is that as flat panel displays become more common, wouldn't it be nice to be able to just pick the screen up and use it to work in another room? Yes it would, and the add-on cost of the electronics to do this won't make a vast impact on the price of an LCD unit, so you might as well do it. The second, far less satisfactory answer however stems straight from the execution of the first - this here 'screen' you can carry around with you is in essence a Windows CE device which could, if you wanted, participate on a network in its own right, run Terminal Server sessions from your PC, communicate with other similar devices on the network...

Except you can't. 'Good grief,' thinks the Microsoft licensing department when it sees the spec. 'This is a thin client, a Network Computer, we must put a stop to this.' 'Good grief,' thinks the OEM sales department. 'This will cannibalise our PC sales. We must put a stop to it.' So it isn't, and it doesn't. For now, anyway.

You do indeed probably have an ARM in there, it is indeed going to be running CE, and it is indeed the case (as it says in the handout) that Windows CE.NET is the "foundation for Mira-enabled display devices, with support for 802.11 wireless networking, instant on, accelerated graphics, multiple CPU support, and the Remote Desktop Protocol client." But it's maimed. As shipped (during the second half of this year) Miras will simply provide a wireless screen for the PC you're logged into (you can set up separate logons), you can't use them as independent devices, you can't use Mira software to use other CE devices to run your PC in Mira mode, and you can't have multiple Miras logging onto one PC at the same time.

As all of us round these parts know, there are no technical reasons why this could not be done, just licensing ones. The Microsoft reps today talked unconvincingly of lack of demand in the home at the moment, then spoiled it by admitting that a multi-user capability is being mooted for Mira 2, scheduled for late 2003. They also, equally unconvincingly, described Mira as being specifically for the home, while the Tablet PC is the device that's appropriate for business.

OK, scenario one, home. Say you can get this dinky little device that's light, fashionable, and you can use an 802.11 connection to surf the web, check your mail, do a little light work (either pecking at the on-screen keyboard or using an extension one)... For the little ones, the price tag will be around $500, so are you interested or not? Does it make sense to buy a couple of these for a home multi-user system, rather than everybody having to have a PC? And of course if you could just wander into a public 802.11 zone and use it to surf, that'd make it even more attractive, wouldn't it? On the other hand, does it make sense to spend $500 for a secondary display you can use while lounging in bed, or $800 for a primary display that you can unplug from the desktop machine and do likewise with? Note that for licensing reasons (not Microsoft's, this time) you can't watch DVDs while in remote wireless mode, so you can forget that obvious application when weighing up the pros and cons.

Scenario two, business. At $500, even in its current form it makes a kind of sense for people to have one, especially as they're each going to have their own work PC anyway. You walk around the office and you've always got your PC available, and you can use the same device for your home PC - a no-brainer, even without access to public 802.11 networks. But in business you're not supposed to think dinky little device, $500, no-brainer; you're supposed to think Tablet PC, $2,000 high-spec next generation portable equivalent. And you're supposed to think Terminal Server licensing when it comes to thin clients.

So is it hackable? Almost certainly, and considering how attractive the smaller units are (Philips does a groovy one, while the LG unit, although small, has a strangely brick-like heft to it)), the idea of turning it into a proper CE machine or shoving Linux on it is more than a little compelling. And even has potential for triggering the long overdue overthrow of the PC-centric world.

Does Mira work as is? Well, yes and no. The little ones are clearly very neat. But they're eight or ten inch, so they're really secondary monitors, not devices that can also do service as primary displays. You can pick up the bigger ones Microsoft is currently showing and walk around with them, but really you're not going to want to. Even if you thought in terms of an ultra-thin, ultra-light (which these are not) 15in display, it's still going to be too a large piece of real estate for you to carry it around casually, and anything smaller than that just won't do duty as a standard desktop display. So really, Microsoft needs the hackers to save it from itself by turning this into a proper product. ®

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