The Digital Living Room: What?s coming from Microsoft

Now, this is something you typically don’t get from Apple: a vision of what the company plans to enable in the future. This is because Microsoft has a massive number of hardware partners they need to convince to get behind their initiatives, while all Apple needs to do is have Steve Jobs say “jump,” and Apple hardware says “how high”. But the result is that Microsoft can touch many more things much more quickly than Apple, or any other existing single vendor, which means they actually have more say on what the future may hold.

This isn’t to say they are always right (there have clearly been a long list of products that they thought were going to be big hits, starting with Microsoft Bob, that weren’t) ,however, they surprised Sony with the Xbox, and some of the new products they are showcasing could also hit their mark.

Bill Gate’s keynote set the pace for the event, and he began by pointing out that for every dollar Microsoft made from Windows, third parties made $18; this number was validated by IDC. This, coupled with the initial Vista sales number of $40 million, was intended to remind the audience how much their success depends on Microsoft’s and to be a sharp contrast to Apple, whose total installed base is estimated at less than this. 

Not bad timing for a big Vista pitch, since the product has been in the market for over 90 days (which typically means the major teething problems are behind it and that from this point on, people will increasingly see it in a favorable light). 

This is the last time Bill will keynote WinHec as he winds down his duties at Microsoft, and he had an impressive swan song.

Windows Home Server

This is going to be an interesting product to see roll to market. Basically, Home Server is a Windows Server light version, and it is designed to run 24/7 in the home and be your primary repository for all of your digital stuff. Much like it would be for a server in the company where you work, you should be able to get access to this stuff (through a free, easy-to-set-up domain name) from anyplace in the world and provide limited access, so others can get to it as well.

It is designed to be the security center for the home, as well as providing a centralized location where you can make sure everyone’s security software is up-to-date and provide regular off-hour backups. Regular backups could be incredibly important since hard drive failures are reported to be increasing, and making sure your stuff doesn’t go with the drive is becoming more important as well.

You can add new drives on the fly using USB, or in the HP demonstration box, Media Bays. And it’s incredibly easy to increase the size of the repository (basically all the drives can be combined into one huge drive partition). If you have enough drives you can mirror your repository, so even if the server drives fail, you won’t lose your data (granted, if someone trashes all the drives at once, you’re still likely screwed, so putting this thing in a safe, dry place would be very wise).
It kind of makes you wonder if, in about 20 years, homes will come with their own little glass enclosed IT space, kind of like a safe room for your home server. Designs range from the traditional to the nontraditional

In use, the server is headless (in other words, you don’t hook up a keyboard, mouse, or monitor to it). You administer it remotely from any one of the connected PCs using a vastly simpler (from a server perspective) user interface. I’ve been beta testing done, and it is very easy to set up and use. 

The Windows Home Server likes Windows Vista a lot — which it should, since the server was designed with Vista in mind — but it will also work with Windows XP (though XP is clearly a bit more difficult to set up and use with it). 

This is just the beginning; this is a virgin platform that is slated to host a variety of, as yet, unidentified third-party applications like home security and home automation. It might actually work well for an in-home LAN Party server at some point. 

Media Extenders 

Feeding off this server are new classes of easier-to-set-up media extenders (which should be much more attractively priced than the first set): some unique (and yet to be identified) peripherals, centralized printers and scanners, and the house PCs. As before, media extenders are still expected to be built into TVs and other media appliances that will be networked together, and you can imagine a time where none of your TVs are connected to anything but your home network. In that world, the media they presented would stream off the Home Server or come off the Web. 

Media extenders can be fed, as before, by PCs, but they will be ideal for the Home Server. In the future, you can imagine music, movie, TV, and other digital content services automatically downloading to the Home Server so your stuff is ready to be watched on any extender (or Xbox) when you are ready to watch it. 

Windows Rally

Windows Rally is kind of like Intel Viiv, because the brand labels products that will best work together and covers a wide variety of products. In an onstage demonstration, Microsoft got a network up and running securely in 90 seconds. Generally, this is a distinct improvement over stand-alone home networking products, though it is very similar to a demonstration that Intel did with Viiv nearly a year ago. 

The Canon SD430 camera (which is compliant with the new logo program) was demonstrated, and there were no visible problems. Setup seemed vastly easier than the first batch of networked cameras. 

Unified Communications: Your Phone is your PC, Your PC is Your Phone 

This brought back the really bad memory of the Microsoft Phone. This was a product that came out on top of Windows 95; it looked cool, but worked horribly (there is a bad joke in there someplace), largely because Windows 95 was so unreliable. That was then, this is now. The new phone looks really cool

Mirroring a similar idea for business, this would allow you to see who is available before you make your call, present who a caller is (based on information you have or that exists on the Web) when including a picture when they are calling, and tie together call logs based on caller ID with voicemail records, all of which could be viewed remotely (like from the office). 

I used to mess with stuff like this a few years back when I was doing telephony work and, when it works, it is truly a wonderful way to manage and make calls. (I really hate voicemail and sales calls at awkward times.) 

Saying Goodbye to Bill, Anticipating Apple and Cisco 

This was all part of a long goodbye for Bill Gates, who has been cycling out of tech and becoming increasingly focused on his charitable trust. It’s kind of hard to get mad at someone who is spending much of his time getting food, medicine, and clean water to folks that don’t have it.

He has certainly left a mark on the world and in my living room; it will be interesting to see what the next generation brings. The next big event is Apple’s Developer Conference. They historically don’t talk about things in advance, but have been breaking that rule of late (iPhone, AppleTV). We’ll see if they have a strong counterpoint to Microsoft’s vision. It just occurred to me that Cisco may be next, and we already know they too will be pushing hard into the living room and may eclipse both vendors due to their set top-box pedigree and ease-of-use focus.

As Bill leaves, a lot of folks will be battling for your living room. I guess that’s better than battling in your living room, but if all this stuff doesn’t work together, I’ll bet that difference isn’t as big as you would like. 

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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