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Microsoft device to bridge TV, PC

The company is expected to demonstrate a tablet-shaped device at the upcoming CES that will serve as a bridge between the TV, the PC and Microsoft's .Net services.

Microsoft will demonstrate on Monday a tablet-shaped device that will serve as a bridge between the TV, the PC and the company's .Net services, according to sources familiar with the plans.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is expected to show off the device, known as Mira, during his eHome presentation Monday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The device is effectively a cross between a Pocket PC-based handheld computer and a TV remote control. Sources said Mira will use Microsoft's Terminal Server, software that governs the exchange of data between a computing device and a central server.

Mira will be a wireless handheld device and contain a large screen. In conjunction with a TV or a PC, Mira will deliver Internet content, serve as a portable game player in conjunction with Microsoft's Xbox video game console, and allow consumers to shop online, view program listings and perform other tasks.

Mira will be larger than a standard Pocket PC-based handheld and be closer in size to Microsoft's Tablet PC, the wireless, portable computer design Gates touted at this fall's Comdex trade show.

"We refer to them as a media pad," said Richard Doherty, president of research firm The Envisioneering Group. Doherty was free to discuss some rough details of Microsoft's plans because the information was independently obtained prior to formal nondisclosure-agreement briefings, he said. Doherty did not provide the Mira name. Other analysts confirmed the name but could not share more details.

A Microsoft representative assigned to the eHome project declined to comment on the Mira reports but indicated a related announcement will be made Monday.

Gartner analyst Mark Margevicius says Microsoft is chasing the consumer like never before. It's not just the PC now, but TV as well--the beginning of the software giant's invasion of the family room.

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It is unclear when the product will come out, how much it will cost or which companies will manufacture it.

Doherty described Mira as a central remote control for Microsoft's vision of a connected home, in which PCs, televisions, game consoles and other devices seamlessly swap data.

"Consumers don't want to have extra menus on their TV screens," Doherty said. "One or more tablets become the way to schedule TV programs, get the recipe Martha Stewart is making, or buy the jacket Jennifer Aniston is wearing."

Many of these computing functions that Mira provides will come through .Net My Services, a part of Microsoft's .Net strategy that stores personal data such as calendar items and addresses for retrieval by multiple devices. Microsoft's Terminal Server software shifts many computing functions off the device and onto other computers--owned either by the individual or by a service provider. Consumers can't really use a Mira device without a persistent connection to a more powerful computer.

see special report: Web services: The new buzz As such, Mira would mirror many functions of personal digital assistants (PDAs), such as devices based on Microsoft's Pocket PC operating sytem. "It would be more of a social PDA than a business PDA," Doherty said.

In many ways, 2002 is shaping up to be the year of the tablet. Compaq Computer and other manufacturers are coming out later this year with their own versions of a tablet PC based on Microsoft's design ideas. Meanwhile, Apple Computer on Monday reportedly will unveil a new version of the iMac with a flat-panel screen, according to sources. IBM, with its NetVista, has already shown how to compress a computer into the frame of a flat-panel screen.

Although it is difficult to say which, if any, of these devices will succeed, Mira does offer some advantages that other upcoming machines don't. For one, Mira will likely be a lot cheaper and lighter than competing products.

Devices that use Terminal Server software don't need ultra-fast processors because most of the computing takes place on a server or a PC. Using more basic processors drops the prices but also cuts out the need for heat pipes and other insulating components. Slower processors simply generate less heat. Similarly, battery life typically grows as the processor slows.

Tablet PC devices, which will use standard PC processors, are expected to cost close to $2,000.

Mira will also give Microsoft an opportunity to push .Net services into the home. The Tablet PC, a full-fledged computer in its own right that resembles an Etch-A-Sketch, can effectively function on its own and store data on its own hard drive. Mira will need to be connected to another computer to perform tasks such as video compression, data storage or Internet surfing. In all likelihood, Microsoft will package services for Mira in this regard.

Formerly code-named HailStorm, My Services includes the existing Passport online identity authentification system and new services, such as a calendar, profile, e-wallet, notifications and contacts management, along with a way to meter use of those services, which Microsoft and partners will offer for a fee, beginning later this year.

My Services is part of Microsoft's overall .Net strategy, which branches out to nearly all of Microsoft's products, services, Web sites and development efforts. It is an umbrella concept for how new software should be designed, a set of products for building that software, and an initial set of Microsoft-hosted services, .Net My Services.

Ultimately, the plan will encompass Microsoft's all-important transition from dependence on one-time sales of software and upgrades to a more stable source of revenue based on recurring subscription fees--the central goal of .Net My Services.

CNET's Mike Riccuti contributed to this report.