When you launch a new product, it's always best to have a clear message. You buy a dishwasher because you hate washing up, you buy a car because you can't walk 20 miles to work, or wait for the bus that comes once a week; and you buy a Microsoft Smart Display because, um...
"It gives you a more relaxed computer experience," explained Megan Kidd, Microsoft's Product Manager for Embedded Systems, when she was in London recently to launch the company's new Smart Display products, previously known under the 'Miro' development name. However, if you've also heard about Tablet PCs, another recent Microsoft idea, you might be wondering why you need two devices with similar price tags that appear, at least on the face of it, to do the same thing.
But Tablet PCs and Smart Displays are not the same: a Tablet PC is a personal computer with local storage and the ability to run applications like any other computer, whereas the Smart Display is best thought of as the computer equivalent of a cordless telephone. Instead of having to sit at your desk looking at a static monitor, you can pick up the screen and move it around without any wires. I really like the concept of the Smart Display, because if you stick to things the technology is good at, it's a very useful idea indeed, and for musicians working in studios it could be the best thing since, well, the last thing that was really good.
It's important to understand that all the Smart Display does is reproduce the image on your computer monitor. Whatever you have running on your desktop PC (with the notable exception of video) will show up on the Smart Display, and if you've ever used PC remote-control software like PC Anywhere or Laplink, you'll understand the benefits and limitations of remote screen duplication. But a Smart Display really does add the benefit of convenient portability around the house, studio or office, in a way that laptops don't. For many applications, there's absolutely no reason why you should want to take a computer with you when all you need is a simple way to interact with it. In fact, the Smart Display devices use processors similar to those inside Pocket PCs such as Compaqs iPaq range, because they're designed for low power consumption while still delivering decent performance.
The biggest disadvantage of the way Smart Displays currently work is that they can't display quality moving video. This is because they use Windows' Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), which works by updating only the parts of the screen that change, leaving the rest alone. With a typical video, most of the screen is changing most of the time, so you'd need around 25 Megabytes of bandwidth per second to keep the remote device updated fully with a 1024 x 768 XGA resolution. Smart Displays use 802.11b wireless networking for their communication with the host computer and this maxes out at around a twentieth of that, which makes them inadequate for a full (or 'rich' as Microsoft would probably put it) multimedia experience. But, as you'll see below, if you're asking for video on Smart Display, you've misunderstood what it's for.
So, what are Smart Displays good for? Web browsing, of course — I'm a great exponent of 'sofa computing'. Although laptop computers are great, even the smallest models can be clumsy if you're in the full slump position, and this is where I see the Smart Display fitting in very nicely. The Viewsonic 10.4-inch Smart Display is small and light enough to just sit on your lap, and yet also has a good enough display and battery life for extended use. A very usable on-screen keyboard pops up if you need to input URLs, which you can tap with a stylus, and it will even recognise handwriting, if, unlike mine, your handwriting is actually recognisable — just like a Pocket PC.
But where it really gets interesting is when you look at how the Smart Display idea might fit in with how you use music and video in your home. I've got so much audio and video kit in my lounge that you could mistake it for a branch of Dixons, and connecting it together is such a chore that, more often than not, I don't make full use of it all. What I need is two things: all my media stored on one computer, acting as a server, and a very capable remote control that can not only route outputs to inputs, but let me organise playlists and search for tracks. This is the ideal job for the Smart Display; this kind of control role would be the killer application in my opinion. And in the studio, Smart Displays will let you sit back in the big leather swivel chair, perfectly positioned between the main speakers, yet able to control any aspect of the production that's running on the host computer.
Microsoft's Smart Display technology is just one example of the way people have been using monitors in different configurations to suit their working style. Anyone using complex audio and video production software will be aware of the advantages of using multiple monitors, where you'd have your mixing controls on one monitor and your timeline on the other, for example. This used to be an expensive proposition, but a few years ago Matrox brought out their G-range of graphics cards, which changed everything because they were cheap, worked, and, coupled with plummeting monitor prices, meant that a dual-monitor setup was within the range of most users. Matrox's latest offering has up to three monitor ports, which makes a multiple-monitor system a ridiculously cheap proposition with the likes of Dabs.com in the UK offering Phillips 15-inch LCD screens for under £200 including VAT!
My own personal favourite alternative monitor setup involves Microsoft Outlook and a Compaq iPaq. When I'm working on my laptop with an audio application like Cubase SX, I prefer not to have any other applications on the screen. The screen is cluttered enough, and I don't want to have to switch between windows every time some new email arrives. So what I do is take up the whole screen with Cubase, and have my iPaq connected via a USB port. The synchronization software in Windows XP and Pocket PC means that as soon as an email arrives on the main computer, it's displayed and can be read on the iPaq.
Now, this is a rather special case because not everyone might want to watch their email minute by minute as I tend to, but this does all point to a rather interesting possibility. Music software manufacturers could write add-ons or plug-ins that could make use of externally connected devices so that they can be used both to display information or to input control parameters, and this is becoming more and more of a practical reality as smart devices connected by Bluetooth or 802.11x proliferate.
Wouldn't it make sense for, say, a plug-in to be able to use a remote device as its display panel and remote control? Don't forget that we're not talking about transferring audio in real time here, just information about the settings of plug-ins. Within a year, most new mobile phones will have large colour screens, Bluetooth connectivity and the ability to run Java; and for once, the infrastructure will be there before the applications. This looks to me like a really cool opportunity to add value and functionality to the way we interact with the programs we use.
While Smart Displays and Tablet PCs may look the same, such as Viewsonic's airPanel Wireless Monitor V110 and Tablet PC V1100 illustrated above, they're designed for quite different purposes.
I recently upgraded my mobile phone to a model that supports Bluetooth, and it was bundled with a Jabra BT200 Bluetooth headset. The idea is that you can leave your phone in your pocket, suitcase, bathroom, or anywhere else within a 30-foot range, and answer it just by tapping a button on the headset. It's a great idea, with the only possible down side being that you look like you've been assimilated by the Borg.
However, there was a much larger problem with this combination of kit in that it didn't actually work — worse than that, it didn't work in a very annoying way. It would cut the Bluetooth connection exactly as you were connected to an incoming call, or at other random times, and voice dialling, which is surely the raison d'etre of wireless headsets, didn't work at all. At first, I suspected the headset to be at fault because I hadn't heard of the manufacturer before and assumed it was just a cheap thing that would never work properly anyway. On further research, though, this assumption turned out to be unfair since the headset it questions is actually a very nice piece of design that works very well with other phones.
So yes, the problem was that the Nokia phone was incompatible with the headset, and, it would seem from the comments on the Internet, several other headsets as well. In fact, I later found a letter from Jabra to one afflicted user explaining that the headset was indeed incompatible with this Nokia phone, the 6310i. I gave the Orange press office the opportunity to explain why they were bundling a phone and a headset that were known to be incompatible and they said they'd get back to me — but they never did.
The moral is: Bluetooth is set to change the way we work with the technology that surrounds us, and in the field of music and recording there are great possibilities, such as wireless MIDI. But these are the days early days: don't assume that just because a piece of gear is equipped with Bluetooth (or any other wireless protocol) that it will just work. It'll probably be fine, but just make sure that you're not the one who has to find out it isn't.