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Microsoft preps Windows info appliance

Posted: 08 Jan 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:microsoft? information appliance? ia? consumer electronics show? xbox?

Microsoft Corp. is expected to roll out a concept for a Windows-centric information appliance at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show. The move comes on the heels of the company's successful Xbox launch.

In a second front in its push into the home, the company will detail new home-networking capabilities embedded in Windows XP. But sources familiar with the plans are split on whether they will extend the Windows giant's reach into the consumer realm or simply become the next in a long line of failed info appliance concepts.

Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates will announce a family of portable devices developed under the code name Mira in his keynote Monday at CES, in Las Vegas. The systems will leverage new terminal-services software that handles the light work of presenting data on an LCD, relying on an 802.11b wireless connection to a Windows XP desktop PC that actually cranks out the application-processing work.

Citrix Systems Inc. uses a similar approach to divide Windows applications into a presentation piece for simple client devices and a back-end processing chunk for servers used in a business setting.

National Semiconductor Corp., a longtime champion of information appliances, will show a reference design for the Mira system based on its Geode processor at CES. A number of computer and consumer OEMs, including Philips, are expected to show prototype systems that use Mira software to offer PC capabilities on tablet-size devices. Products will ship in late 2002 at a cost of $500 to $800.

In the future, Microsoft hopes to provide the terminal-services software to makers of various home devices that could provide PC and Web features. Microsoft would not comment on its plans prior to Gates' keynote.

"It's an interesting model that I think will work very well," said a source familiar with Mira who asked not to be named. "People will start embracing the Mira concept in a wide variety of devices, like set-tops, Tivo video recorders and so on. The kitchen PC becomes realistic and not expensive with this approach."

Another source was more skeptical. "The concept is valid. It's a way of extending the PC experience to multiple sites over 802.11, but my suspicions are the customers will be limited to early-adopter types," he said.

Microsoft would say only that Mira was developed and will be sold by its Embedded and Appliance Division, which was reorganized about two months ago under Todd Warren.

A separate Microsoft group named eHome has been prototyping products and developing software to help link various devices across different home networks. That group is initially exploring ways to intelligently route audio files between PCs, home stereos and other devices over a variety of home network types using both new software and features present in the recently launched Windows XP but not publicly described before.

Microsoft is said to have OEM partners ready to adopt the new home-networking software. The company is believed to be debating whether to actually certify systems using that software and brand them with an eHome logo.

"Gates is passionate about this. He was passionate about the Xbox last year, and this is his thing for 2002," said another source familiar with the company's consumer plans who asked not to be named.

The source said the eHome and XP software would perform functions similar to the Sony Visca, launched several years ago. The Visca was an infrared-based switch box the size of two large paperback novels that allowed various Sony-made consumer systems to talk to each other. The eHome and XP software would work across multiple vendors' systems and multiple home-networking types.

By contrast, the Mira systems could address one of the problems that has plagued information appliances: the lack of the full feature set offered by PCs. However, due to the 802.11b links, these systems still face significant limits. For instance, they are not expected to be capable of running PC games software or streaming audio or video.

One source said the bill of materials for a Mira system could be half that of a notebook computer. Still, at expected prices of $500 or more, Mira boxes will be nearly as expensive as buying a second PC. On top of that, users would have to pay $130 or more to set up an 802.11b network.

"There has not been a compelling product for the consumer that takes us beyond the PC," said Mike Polacek, vice president of information appliances at National Semiconductor. "Still, National has 50 to 60 new consumer systems being developed, some by companies with marquee names and others that are small firms you have never heard of. So I'm convinced this is still going to happen."

Polacek would not discuss the Mira project prior to the Gates speech, but he did say his group has witnessed the downfall of other devices in this area such as the I-Opener from startup Netpliance Inc. and the Audrey from 3Com Corp. "Consumer marketing is a tricky business, and I don't know if Microsoft has any more information on this than the others," Polacek said.

Indeed, several years ago Microsoft used CES as a platform to launch its consumer PC interface, called Bob, which quickly flopped.

Separately, a spin-off from former PC maker Zenith Data Systems used the Citrix technology several years ago to launch a handheld Windows tablet for business users which depended on a wireless link to a desktop PC. That product also failed, though analysts said wireless connections have become much cheaper and offer more bandwidth today.

Despite Microsoft's checkered history in the consumer market, Gates is expected to claim leadership in consumer electronics based on sales of some 1.5 million Xbox videogame consoles, a feat he will claim in his CES keynote represents the most successful launch of a consumer product ever. The company hopes to follow up that launch with a number of products that will carry the logo of its eHome Division and be based on Microsoft software or reference designs.

Rick Merritt

EE Times

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