Moving on the home front

Bill Gates stole the show yet again at last week’s CES event in Las Vegas with his vision of every household having a server with which to manage their digital content. IT Weekly and Windows Middle East’s Matthew Wade, reporting from the expo, take a closer look at what technologies Microsoft and its partners will be trying push though people’s front doors

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By  Matthew Wade Published  January 18, 2007

While giving his annual keynote address to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, US, last week, Bill Gates admitted that he might not be carrying out many more such functions in the future. With the Microsoft chairman planning to step down from full-time activities for the company in 2008, he acknowledged that next year might be his swansong at CES.

"After that, I'm not sure they'll want to invite me because I might talk more about infectious diseases," he told delegates. "If they want me, fine."

If his future appearances at CES are likely to be limited, it has to be said that his keynote is still the highlight of the show; this year's address proving no exception, with Gates introducing a new version of the firm's Windows server operating system (OS) devoted to home users.

Microsoft teamed up with HP on the development of Home Server, with the latter introducing its HP MediaSmart Server, a specialist machine running Home Server. Billed as the first storage device of its kind, MediaSmart - and competing models from other hardware vendors - should hit the market during the second half of this year.

The two firms are trying to tap into a market that Microsoft estimates worldwide has 19 million home network users who use two or more networked PCs, possibly in addition to Xbox consoles and Microsoft Zune multimedia devices.

"As computers and digital media become more and more central to family life, we need better ways to organise, share and protect digital content and information at home," Gates said in his keynote. "Windows Home Server makes it easy for families to save, protect and access digital memories and experiences so they can focus on using technology to organise their day-to-day lives, explore their interests and share their memories with the people they care about."

"We think it's a category that will explode in importance," he went on to say.

Home Server is based upon Microsoft's Windows 2003 server OS, although the firm has indicated that it will base later versions on its upcoming Longhorn Server, when that becomes available.

Home Server sits on a high-capacity hardware rig, such as HP's MediaSmart device, to allow a family or a group of house-sharers to store all their multimedia content (such as pictures, video games, movies and music) on one central, network-connected device. If a household is running a wireless local area network (LAN) therefore, this server can allow access to this content without the need for cables and from any room in the house. Two examples of Home Server use might include listening to music from any connected PC in the house, or looking at laptop-saved photos on an Xbox 360.

In order to safeguard a family's much-loved content, the Home Server features an automated backup function, plus it is designed to be easily upgradable. It is even capable of being connected to remotely, meaning for instance that a user's friends and relatives overseas could log on to his server via a free personalised Windows Live web address.

In addition to the HP MediaSmart machine demonstrated by Gates onstage last week, Microsoft has also offered a reference design for its Home Server concept to numerous other hardware vendors, including AMD and Intel. IT Weekly sister title Windows Middle East noted three additional models on display at CES, one of which was the Inventec Home Server IHS2B.500. This sleek, white, two-drive, 500Gbyte solution can be placed horizontally or vertically in a home or home office. Windows Home Server will require connected PCs to be running Windows XP SP2 (Professional or Home editions), however systems running earlier Windows versions or other operating systems will support file sharing.

Home Server wasn't the only highlight of Microsoft's presentation at CES - with the consumer launch of Windows Vista scheduled for the end of this month, the firm was anxious to make the most of the media attention trained on CES to plug it. As part of this, Gates announced at the show that the company will extend the functionality of its highest end Vista version, ‘Vista Ultimate', by rolling out downloadable Windows ‘Extras' - functionality-adding upgrades similar to Mac widgets - from the end of this month. Speaking during Gates' keynote address at CES, the group product manager of Microsoft's Windows Client division, Justin Hutchinson, demonstrated three forthcoming Extras.

First up was a video application, called ‘Dreamscene', which allows a user to set a favourite video as their Windows desktop rather than merely a still image. In the case of notebook PCs, this video will be disabled when moving from AC to DC power in order to conserve valuable system resources.

The second application premiered was ‘Group Shot', an innovative photo editing tool that allows the best parts of two almost-identical images to be combined in order to create the exact shot the user wanted. For example, a user can combine two flawed, similar shots of friends to create one master shot that shows each subject's eyes open.

Finally, Hutchinson demonstrated a new raft of ‘Casual Games'. Aimed at general users rather than fully-blown hardcore gamers, these will include a ‘Texas Hold ‘em' version of the card game poker. When Windows ME caught up with Windows Extras staff at CES, it was not yet known whether the above-mentioned poker game would see the light of day in the Middle East. Staff did suggest however that, over time, Microsoft's aim was to offer Windows Ultimate Extras in local languages, with content applicable to each region. Extras will be offered to owners of Vista Ultimate, for free, from January 30.

In addition to Dreamscene and Hold ‘Em Poker, this first batch is also set to include two tools that make it easier to use some of the security features in Windows Vista Ultimate: the Windows BitLocker Drive Preparation Tool, which configures a user's hard drive so that they can use the BitLocker Drive Encryption feature of Vista, and Secure Online Key Backup, a utility that stores a backup copy of the BitLocker recovery password and Encrypting File System (EFS) recovery certificates in the user's digital locker, a secure Microsoft web site.

All Extras will take the form of optional downloads, accessible through the Windows Update service. Windows patches and fixes, meanwhile, will continue being offered through this service as normal.

Microsoft is claiming that more than 2,000 products will be certified for Windows Vista by the time it launches, and some of the more interesting and innovative machines were demonstrated at CES.

Among these were Toshiba's Portege R400 tablet PC, which is a 3G-ready tablet computer with an external notification display for showing e-mail and calendar events. This effectively means that not only can owners continuously access their e-mail and the internet via their 3G operator subscription (the SIM card for which slots inside the notebook itself via an embedded module), but they can be notified of new mails via Microsoft Active Notifications and calendar events - including the text within these messages - without having to open the machine at all, thanks to its front-placed scrolling LCD display.

"Windows Vista is the catalyst for a variety of new hardware devices being made available to consumers," Gates said in his address. "The result will be an incredible set of new connected experiences that link our interests, our communities and our desires in ways that extend across home, work and play."

If Gates is not to make too many more appearances at CES, then at least he can say that this one was a good one.

“As computers and digital media become more and more central to family life, we need better ways to organise, share and protect digital content and information at home.”

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