August 23, 2013, 11:58 AM — We worry far too much about the desktop PC becoming a relic of a bygone age. Our focus, instead, should be on the monitor that the PC connects to. Indeed, as we use more and more mobile devices with integrated screens--notebooks, tablets, and smartphones--we pay much less attention to the aging, dumb monitors sitting on our desks.
But monitor makers know the score--and now they're fighting back. Meet the monitor of the future: It's smart, connected, and in some cases portable. Inside isn't just an LCD panel, a backlight, and some logic tying it all together. Instead, it's looking more and more like a tablet, complete with a CPU, a touchscreen, storage, and a full-fledged Android operating system.
Wait-wait-wait, you say. What's the difference between a smart monitor and an all-in-one PC? Or a portable display and a tablet? Today, not much. And doesn't connecting a keyboard to a smart monitor reproduce the functionality of a docked notebook? Yes, absolutely. But as computing components shrink in size and become more modular, manufacturers of all stripes (and this includes monitor manufactuers) gain the flexibility to try out new concepts.
Here's what it means for you: Over time, manufacturers hope the smart monitor will replace the traditional family desktop PC. By itself, the smart monitor will serve as an inexpensive, casual computing environment for Web browsing and simple games. Connected to a laptop or tablet, however, the smart monitor becomes "dumb" at the touch of a button, letting the laptop or tablet's CPU and OS run the show.
And over time, as embedded CPUs become cheaper and more prevalent, smart monitors will simply push older, "dumb" monitors aside.
That's the thinking, anyway. Rhoda Alexander, a veteran display analyst with IHS iSuppli, calls the smart monitor category "experimental" and "ill-defined" as it pivots between tablets and all-in-ones. Nonetheless, she says, designing a smart monitor is a natural development for the display market.
"Instead of sitting back and waiting to see what happens in the monitor market, [monitor makers] are trying to grow share and make products to become more competitive," she explains. "They're going to try a lot of different spins on how they go to market," just like the tablet vendors, she says.
"This is the big lesson of the tablet market," Alexander continues. "If you create a compelling use case, the product just flies off the shelf. If you don't have that use case, you can suck it up the wazzoo."
Right now, smart monitors notwithstanding, that's just what the desktop LCD panel market is doing, with a steady year-over-year decline, as measured by NPD DisplaySearch. And a declining market means declining prices--great for consumers, but troublesome for monitor makers who have seen their profits disappear.
A year or so ago, some monitor makers made what they considered an obvious decision: Follow the trail blazed by connected TVs, which are packed with apps, video streaming services, and an Internet browser. Consulting firm Deloitte predicts that tens of millions of connected TV sets will sell globally in 2013, and the installed base of TV sets with integrated connectivity should exceed 100 million. In the United Kingdom, a full 20% of TVs sold in the first quarter of 2012 had Internet connectivity, U.K. regulator Ofcom reported last year. Over time, the firm expects, it will be difficult to find an HDTV without connectivity.
The first smart monitors: first-gen problems
Last September, Viewsonic launched the VSD220, a 22-inch, 1920-by-1080 LCD monitor that currently retails for $362--about double the price of the ASUS VS228H-P, a 22-inch LCD monitor with similar dimensions and resolution. Inside, however, lies a TI OMAP processor, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, ethernet, three USB ports, and a touchscreen--along with Android 4.0. Just as a TV switches between different input sources, the VSD220 can switch between Android and an HDMI connection to a Windows PC at the touch of a button.
"The idea behind the VSD220 really started with the changing behavior of our customers, from PCs to smartphones to tablets," says Kenneth Mau, a product marketing manager with Viewsonic, who adds that "thousands" of VSD220 monitors have been sold to date. "Consumer behavior went from compute to consume."
That doesn't mean that the transition went smoothly, however. Initially, the VSD220 was incompatible with the Google Play Store, meaning that apps like Netflix had to be downloaded from Amazon, an inconvenience. Viewsonic also operates its own app store, although popular apps like Spotify either didn't run or were offset 90 degrees in portrait mode. Some apps displayed awkwardly, and others were simply incompatible. Connected TVs, with a limited number of video-streaming apps optimized for large displays, haven't suffered the same problems.
"Neither Android customers nor developers are necessarily used to a 22-inch Android experience," Mau notes.
That said, Viewsonic plans to expand its Android smart monitor line this fall with two models: the VSD221, a comparably priced follow-up to the VSD220 that upgrades the hardware to Android 4.3, and the VSD241, a larger 24-inch version with an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor inside it, Mau said. Viewsonic also plans a version of the VSD221 for the enterprise, with manageability options that include locking out the Google Play app store. Both models will launch in October.
Viewsonic is also working with app developers and with Google itself to make the apps friendlier to larger screens, Mau said. And both the VSD221 and VSD241 contain a gyroscopic sensor so that they can "tell" an app how they're oriented for either portrait or landscape mode.
Native apps, Web browsing: the family PC, version 2.0
Rival BenQ has found two solutions to the app problem: Design its own apps, and emphasize the Web. BenQ has its own smart monitor, the CT2200, which it hasn't yet sold within the United States, although it's received the necessary FCC certification required to do so. The CT2200 pairs a 22.5-inch, 1920-by-1080 touchscreen with a dual-core ARM Cortex A9, 8GB of flash storage, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, two USB ports, a microSD slot, a 1.2MP webcam, and Android 4.0.4.
Bob Wudeck, associate vice president of strategy and business development at BenQ, says that the company has been forced to rethink the concept of a monitor, whether it be gaming monitors optimized for StarCraft or adding intelligence to the traditional display.
"The traditional model is a display that a desktop or notebook can plug into," Wudeck says. "We don't think that's going to be the case."
"We think that in the future, you'll have more media content on your phone, and you'll share more of that from your phone, than from a desktop computer," Wudeck adds. "And that's something that we can develop a product around."
Feature-wise, the CT2200 looks much like a traditional consumer PC: BenQ allows photos to be sent wirelessly over the network to the onboard storage, or stored in a cloud storage package that BenQ provides. The "Family Board" app shares a calendar, messages and photos, and can display Facebook and Twitter feeds. And the early killer app of a smart monitor is probably the Web, where a browser can be resized to fill the screen, no matter the size of the display.
"If you think about the screen and the way you can communicate with a mobile device, you can turn the monitor into a giant tablet extension," Wudeck says. "And once you start putting a data link into a display, consumers can start asking the next question, which is, "What's a television?"
Todd Fender, a display analyst with NPD DisplaySearch, thinks that smart monitors could fit neatly into the established ecosystem of connected devices, if manufacturers can do a better job of explaining how they're useful to consumers.
"I think it comes down to there is little education in the marketplace regarding what a true smart' monitor is, and what it can do," he explains in an email. "Tablets, smartphone, and notebook manufacturers may be doing a poor job explaining how they can be used with other peripheral devices like a smart monitor. Right now, they are being used separately, but there are advantages to using the products together. For one, smart monitors can provide larger viewing areas and higher resolutions...so streaming Netflix over your smartphone connected to a smart monitor may make a more enjoyable viewing experience."
It's reasonable to think that, over time, the smart monitor will only increase in capabilities as its price remains relatively firm. Smart monitor makers have a number of ARM processors from which to choose. This fall, Intel is set to debut "Bay Trail," a next-gen Atom chip that executives have said could be designed into tablets priced at about $150. Intel executives we've interviewed recently don't seem to have smart monitors on their radar screens, but that could be because the tablet and convertible notebook markets make more attractive targets.
Two years from now, the monitor sitting atop your desk may still be dumb--but it will probably also be larger. Mau says he believes that the market for large-screen displays will continue to expand from 17- and 19-inch displays to 24- and 27-inch monsters supporting 4K resolutions. And several monitor makers will likely stick with the traditional, "dumb" form factor.
But that doesn't mean that the smart monitor won't succeed. Today, the difference between a tablet with a kickstand, an all-in-one PC, a smart monitor, and a large two-in-one or convertible tablet is really not that much. Over time, those differences may blur and fade out altogether. For decades, home technology orbited around the desktop PC. What monitor makers hope now is that the lowly display will ascend to become the center of the computing universe.