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Homeward Bound

In his annual keynote to the Consumer Electronics Show, Bill Gates unveiled a concept that he said represents Microsoft's "entry into a new space, and, we think, a very important space."

The space in question: Your home. Or, more accurately, any home with multiple computers and other digital devices, such as printers, Xboxes, MP3 players and cameras. The new product, Windows Home Server, is designed to provide a central location for families to organize, store and share digital documents, games, music, photos and video. Features include automated backup for all PCs, remote access capability via a free Windows Live Internet address and almost limitless plug-in upgrades to increase storage space. "You can get up to literally terabytes on this device," Microsoft's chairman told the CES crowd in January.

Windows Home Server is scheduled to ship sometime in the second half of this year on Hewlett-Packard Development Co.'s new MediaSmart Server. (HP hasn't yet disclosed a retail price for the server; industry observers' published estimates range upward from about $700.) Other hardware companies, including Advanced Micro Devices Inc., Inventec Corp. and Quanta Computer Inc., have developed related reference designs for the software. "[Because] it's a software-driven device, each of the partners will be able to do some unique things running on the server tier, so [there will be] even more richness as you look at the variety that will be out there," Gates said at CES. "We think it's a category that can explode in importance."

Bringing It Home
What's not yet clear is how and when the Microsoft partner community will benefit from that boom. Microsoft has insisted from the start that the concept, which had been code-named "Q" (and, earlier, "Quattro") is a potential gold mine for a broad range of companies other than its initial hardware partners, but to date, there have been few specifics.

"On the software side, we're working with a lot of partners to determine how to extend Windows Home Server to unique scenarios for the family and for the home," Steven VanRoekel, director of Microsoft's Windows Server Solutions Group, said in January, citing as the only example HP's Photo WebShare picture-exchange application. "In terms of the potential for future development of third-party applications and opportunities for partners, I think the sky is sort of the limit once you have a device in the home that's always on and is supported by the rich platform of the Windows ecosystem." Many promotional materials echo that message; typical is this notation in the product's official background sheet: "As a software platform, Windows Home Server offers independent software vendors great opportunities to build innovative products for the digital home."

Of course, there's another question that many partners would probably prefer to see answered before they invest in delving for those opportunities: whether consumers will take to Windows Home Server. And with the product still in beta 2 at this writing, that's difficult to predict.

A Potential Market
There's no question about the potential market for a secure, one-stop home-storage solution. According to Microsoft's own estimates, 34 million U.S. households contain more than one PC, 35 million use a broadband Internet connection and 19 million already use a local area network (LAN) connection. Figures for just one other "connected" device, the digital camera, are equally impressive: Parks Associates, a Dallas-based market-research firm specializing in digital trends, says more than 70 percent of U.S. digital-camera owners store their pictures on their PCs-with collections averaging 1,200 photos. That's a lot of digital data for a home user to manage, and that's where Windows Home Server could come in handy.

Analysts say that consumer adoption comes down to one issue: ease of use. That's an aspect Microsoft has emphasized from the start: "Our goal is to make a simple yet powerful product that people can readily understand from the user interface without having to read a manual or consult the help file," the development team's blog notes. But some analysts aren't yet convinced that the device will offer true plug-and-play capability.

"We haven't seen Home Server yet, so it's hard to say whether it's going to be easy for the average home user. But that's the No. 1 challenge," says Richard Shim, senior analyst in IDC's personal computing division. "I'd be really surprised if the first generation of this product [will] really be that convenient; I suspect it will have the same issues as any other first-generation product."

Of course, problems like that for consumers can be opportunities for partners. In fact, Charlie Kindel, Microsoft's general manager for Windows Home Server, has hinted that the company might establish a program to certify installers.

About the Author

Anne Stuart, the former executive editor of Redmond Channel Partner, is a business technology freelance writer based in Boston, Mass.

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