The past year has been cruel to information appliances, those no-frills devices designed to let you browse the Web, read e-mail, and do other simple computer chores without the cost and fuss of a full-featured PC. Many have come and gone, while a couple of models are hanging on with minimal sales. Still, I think there's a lot of life in the concept. And oddly enough, the salvation of the Web appliance could be Windows XP.
This requires some explanation. The curse of devices such as the Compaq iPAQ Home Internet Appliance, or the defunct 3Com Ergo Audrey and Netpliance iOpener, has been lousy software--second-rate browsers and worse e-mail programs. What if you could use the same programs from a Windows desktop on a wireless tablet that weighs two pounds and sits on your lap or hangs on your refrigerator door?
That's where XP comes in. Every copy of XP Pro contains a program called Remote Desktop that lets an authorized person on another computer on a network log on to your PC and work very much as if he or she were sitting at your keyboard, looking at your monitor. This technology, developed by Citrix Systems and formerly known as Windows Terminal Server, has been around for years, but its use was limited by complexity and restrictive licensing terms. Now it's simple and available to everyone.
One of the best things about Remote Desktop is that most of the computing and all the storage is done on the XP machine. The remote terminal doesn't need much processing power. In fact, there's a version of Remote Desktop built into Microsoft's new Pocket PC software, and while the Pocket PC's small display limits its usefulness, the performance is very good. Rebuild a Pocket PC around a big display and a wireless link to a home network, and you have a dynamite tablet that could tap your desktop Windows XP computer. You could read your e-mail from your easy chair, or call up a Web site with summary statistics while you watch a football game. XP is designed to let multiple users work simultaneously, and most current PCs have plenty of power to support them. As an additional benefit, because all the data reside on a single computer, the difficult problem of synchronizing information, such as a calendar, on different devices vanishes.
Although this idea came to me while I was using Remote Desktop on a laptop at home to do some work on a computer in my office, it's hardly original. Citrix sells its Independent Computing Architecture to allow remote access to a variety of operating systems from all sorts of devices, including handhelds. SONICblue recently announced a deal with Citrix that will allow buyers of its Linux-based ProGear tablets to run Windows applications. The ProGear tablets are sold to such customers as hospitals and schools, typically to run custom applications, such as patient charts.
Microsoft (MSFT ) is promoting a different concept for the tablet computer. Microsoft describes the Tablet PC, which it says hardware partners will bring to market late next year, as "a fully functional PC running Windows XP Professional.... It is not a companion device, PDA, or Webpad." (See www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/tabletpc.) The Microsoft design is basically a laptop turned inside out so that the display is on top, with a touch-sensitive screen and handwriting recognition. Because it has the same components as a laptop, including a keyboard in some cases, its price will likely be "in the medium-to-high-end laptop range," which implies something over $2,000.
If I want to check out a Web site related to a show on television, or if I'm cooking from a recipe, the Microsoft Tablet PC is expensive overkill. And a tablet with those specifications will be lucky to get three to four hours from its battery, not the six to eight that is desirable.
There's still a lot of work to be done to make my off-the-wall idea practical. The most important is that wireless networking, on which the whole concept depends, has to become simple enough so that setting up one or several tablets becomes a true plug-and-play operation.
Interestingly, Microsoft has most of the answers, including a new lightweight operating system called Windows CE .NET that could be perfect for the job. Done right, I think the mass market that has long eluded Internet appliances is there for the taking. If Microsoft won't seize the opportunity it has created, someone else ought to do it.