Windows Server for Consumers: Is There a Place in the Home?

With the near-ubiquity of network architecture as a fundamental part of nearly all computing and digital communications, it was only a matter of time before Microsoft would develop a SKU of Windows Server directed toward the consumer. Windows Home Server may have a substantive impact in the home computing environment, opening up new avenues for connectivity and functionality that home distros of Linux, and even the more media-savvy Mac OS, thus far haven’t considered.

Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg has often said that Microsoft is in a unique position among the world’s corporations: It must find a way to market essentially the same product to a business systems architect as well as a cola-drinking, detergent-using consumer.

Depending on which market some facet of Windows targets, an appropriate hat must be chosen for it, if you will. So when Windows Server 2003 forks a separate version for the home, it has to change hats, dropping the whole security, functionality, and interoperability campaign in favor of, “It’s about the experience.” In fact, Microsoft’s consumer campaigns for both its software and devices will merrily list for you the various things that “it’s about.”

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So when we spoke to Windows Home Server group product manager Joel Sider last week at WinHEC 2007 in Los Angeles, we fully accepted to be told what “it’s about” now, and Sider did not disappoint. But in anticipation of a carefully orchestrated, consumer-oriented message, BetaNews went into the interview with the intention of asking some questions from deep left and deep right field, on topics that wouldn’t usually get air time.

We beg Sider’s forgiveness for all the curve balls. But in the following transcript, watch how a veteran marketer works diligently several times to bring us back “on message,” to move the discussion out of left field and into the territory of topics that do get air time. You’ll see references not only to what “it’s about” but what “it’s not about.” Like an invisible doggie fence, the “it’s not about” message is designed to bring us back to the center of the discussion.

Our talk began with a reference to an earlier keynote demonstration of Windows Home Server streaming content to an Xbox 360, for display on the HDTV to which it was connected.


SCOTT FULTON, BetaNews: A lot of people saw for the first time this morning a demonstration of Home Server working in conjunction with the new extension units...bringing the Xbox 360 into the mix. I’m wondering, why the Xbox specifically? Microsoft may have had an opportunity here to develop a whole new class of media box. Why Xbox? Because it was there?

JOEL SIDER, Group Product Manager for Windows Home Server, Microsoft: A core goal of Windows Home Server is to provide a central place where a family can keep all of its digital content. Everything from pictures to music to video to documents, but a lot of media. Obviously we’re all aggregating more and more media, and we need a place to make sure it’s all protected, backed up, and centralized so you can all get to it. Sharing media, sharing those digital experiences, is a core tenet of the product. And one way to help enable that is streaming it to Xbox, and the reasons to do that is so you can put it on the big screen, so the family can enjoy media in the living room on the big screen. So listen to music through the Xbox from Home Server, enjoy a picture slideshow, enjoy videos, etc. [With] Xbox in this case, through the Windows Media Connect technology – which both Xbox and Home Server support – you’re able to achieve that scenario.

Essentially, we do a lot of focus groups, and continue to do so with potential customers. What they often talk about is, people are kind of siloed off, doing their own thing in the household involving technology. Somebody’s off doing computing, somebody else is playing games, somebody else is doing music, etc. In many ways, we’re kind of off on islands or siloed off, and technology is, in a lot of ways, a great way to better connect us as families. So we see the technology enabling that again by providing a central place where we can all get to and share and participate in video content, and in terms of actually enjoying it as a family.

SCOTT FULTON: Well, if we’re all being connected as families...Microsoft is pretty good at defining how one connects to a device. It has this whole user interface concept pretty well wrapped up. Which goes back to, why the Xbox? Is there something about it specifically that makes it a more suitable, adaptable, connectable thing? It seems that the possibility for awkwardness is there, specifically with – and correct me if I’m wrong – we’re not talking about a universal interface here. We’re talking about a joystick controller.

JOEL SIDER: It is a game controller, and that’s a very good point. It’s not about Xbox, it’s about Windows Media Connect, in that you can stream media very easily, you can dictate that one of your media folders - photos, music, video – are able to stream. That means you can stream to other devices that support Windows Media Connect. Xbox happens to be one of those devices, and happens to be a device that’s pretty widely out there and understood and enjoyed by a lot of people, so it’s an example. Now there are other devices that support it, and in fact, we’ve seen in our focus groups, some people don’t really have a lot of experience with a gaming device and a gaming control. They may just want to use something like a Roku SoundBridge, which is a really clever little product, very small, compact. You connect [it] to speakers, it will easily find Home Server on the network, and you stream your music to it and you just basically have your digital jukebox there in the living room.

We have this whole other array of devices; Xbox is just a good example, but certainly not the only one. It’s really about being able to stream your media to other devices in the home, so the family can better enjoy them.

SCOTT FULTON: A lot of Microsoft technologies come out of the gate fresh, sometimes so fresh that they get tweaked in Service Pack 1. But the moment they’re ready, here they come. In the case of Windows Home Server, it seems to me there is one little critical feature that Microsoft may have had to wait for, and that’s being able to network on Wireless-n, and get that 5 GHz stream that we saw demonstrated today. If the IEEE had agreed on how to keep their gigahertz apart from one another, we might not have had this problem, and some of this stuff we could have had two years ago. Has some of this stuff been on the shelf waiting for everyone else to get their act together?

JOEL SIDER: Really, it’s been a matter of developing the right user interface, the software. Under the hood, this is Windows Server, the stuff that’s in data centers, but we want to think about and research and build in the right way that layer of software that your average consumer, our target market of families and what we call “enthused followers,” not highly technical people, are going to be able to take Home Server off the retail shelf...plug it into the wall for power, connect to your router, install software into the client machine of the home, and you’re off to the races. All your PCs are being backed up, you have a central place to keep everything in a very familiar interface that we’re all familiar with in terms of folders, and in also enabling remote access, so you can connect to your Home Server from anywhere, get to media, share it with other people...and then there’s some added additional features like network monitoring, as well as media streaming.

SCOTT FULTON: On that mark, Microsoft had to go back to the drawing board several years ago to make an operating system that was orders of magnitude more securable than its predecessor. So for the home consumer, security is extremely important. We may not be looking at a platform that is that open to being penetrated quite yet...the technology for “hacking” into the Home Server might not be there yet. But it might be in two to three years’ time. Are you guys ready for this?

JOEL SIDER: Yea, again, the reason we didn’t build this from the ground up, we based it on Windows Server, is because people expect security to be in there. So that proven, hard case of Windows Server, with its security benefits, are already there. Remote access in terms of strong password, issuing of certificates, all of that is there as well. It can be updated just like other versions of Windows, with security fixes, etc., once the model has been established.

SCOTT FULTON: So what points of the Longhorn security infrastructure is under the hood here, that the consumer will benefit from even if she doesn’t see it?

JOEL SIDER: It’s all there, essentially, Windows Server 2003. In a lot of cases, people are going to have their existing firewall in place, so it’s behind the firewall. Remote access can be turned off by default, if you are worried about that extra threat. And then the nice thing is that people like F-Secure and other third-party security providers will also be building software for Home Server as well.

Next: One more try at Windows on your fridge...

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