Microsoft Makes Its Bid for the Connected Home

Microsoft plans to deliver several products this fall that will give life to the company's promise of the connected home. Microsoft has had a foothold in the consumer market by producing various popular computer and video games and game controllers; home-oriented productivity software such as Microsoft Works; and consumer-based Windows releases such as Windows XP and Windows Me, both of which integrate simple home networking and digital-media functionality into the core OS. But beginning this week, the fruits of the company's most recent efforts in the connected-home arena will appear in stores around the world. The following are some of the products Microsoft has just released or will release in the coming days.

Microsoft Broadband Networking
After years of practically begging network-hardware makers such as D-Link Systems and Linksys to make home networking simpler by integrating Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) technology into their products, Microsoft finally gave up and began working on its own home networking product line—Microsoft Broadband Networking. The company designed its hardware line to make sharing a broadband Internet connection and setting up a wired or wireless home network simple, safe, and secure. To that end, Microsoft Broadband Networking products include wired and wireless base stations—essentially routers with hardware firewalls and 4-port switches—as well as a full line of client networking adapters that come in PC Card, PCI, and USB variants. The company is also selling wired and wireless versions of a kit that includes a base station and one USB adapter.

These products' software sets them apart from the competition. Microsoft bundles the same software installer with each hardware device; the software includes a simple Setup Wizard and a base-station management console. The key phrase here is simplicity: Whether you're replacing a slew of networking hardware, as I did during testing, or starting a home network for the first time, the software will walk you through the task, step by step. And in a rare nicety, each hardware device includes a thick reference book and all the components you need, including Ethernet cables and even a floppy disk for duplicating client setups on multiple PCs.

Best of all, the Microsoft Broadband Networking hardware works with most recent Windows versions, including XP, Windows 2000, Windows Me, Windows 98, and Win98SE. Frankly, I expected only XP support, but bravo to Microsoft for not leaving millions of other users in the lurch.

In late October, Microsoft will debut MSN 8, the latest version of the company's MSN online service. This product will include a revamped version of MSN Explorer that will serve as the MSN Web UI and will integrate with Microsoft Web services and provide smarter email filtering and spam control. MSN 8's interface is attractive, and for people who want dial-up access, the company's service offers similar features and pricing and is less likely to be clogged than AOL's. More important, MSN customers will get free access to certain MSN Web services; users of other ISPs will have to pay extra each month if they want to use those services. And MSN offers high-speed DSL access in many areas, although—curiously—I can't yet get it here, just outside of Boston.

Windows XP Media Center Edition
Also in late October, Microsoft will launch Windows XP Media Center Edition, which will be included only with a new Hewlett-Packard HP Media Center PC in North America (and a Samsung Electronics model in Korea; other markets will be added next year). The HP-built PC features a metallic-like fascia, a recordable-DVD drive, front-panel access to various smart card memory slots, and a booming six-speaker setup that includes a subwoofer that's bigger than my car. But the Media Center's big draw is its software: Microsoft includes a Media Center application that sits on top of XP and provides a remote control-enabled UI for digital photo and music tasks, DVD movie playback, and digital video recording (DVR) functionality. You can record TV shows, and pause, rewind, and fast-forward live TV, just as you can with TiVo.

The Media Center PC's biggest strengths—and its biggest weaknesses—are tied to its design as a PC for apartment dwellers, college students, and other space-constrained users who might want to use the PC as a complete entertainment center. So you can use a keyboard and mouse with, for instance, Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel, then jump back on the couch, fire up the remote control, and watch a movie. But the underlying Windows system peeks through the Media Center interface too often—sadly, sometimes with a crash, leading to the uncomfortable proposition of rebooting the TV. And if you use the PC solely with a TV set, as I'm doing during testing, the PC desktop looks blurry and warped.

In the end, the Media Center PC will be an interesting solution for the limited market of space-constrained users who need new PCs. But at $1800 or more, the HP Media Center PC isn't a viable alternative for existing PC users who want to add DVR and DVD functionality to their TVs.

Windows Powered Smart Displays
In November, various companies will release Windows Powered Smart Displays, which are 8" to 15" flat-panel displays that feature embedded wireless capabilities and Windows CE .NET (formerly code-named Talisker), Microsoft's new embedded OS. Customers will typically use these small flat panels as secondary PC displays by placing them throughout the home—in the den, on a kitchen counter, or next to the bed—and use them to perform simple tasks such as browsing the Web or listening to music stored on their PCs. Most people will sit at their desks and use their PCs in the typical fashion when required, but the Windows Powered Smart Displays will let them wirelessly access their PCs from anywhere in their homes by using WiFi, the 802.11b wireless standard.

Windows Powered Smart Displays feature stylus input on a touch screen and a pop-up software keyboard for text-based tasks (e.g., filling out a Web form or writing a short email message). Wi-Fi is too slow for video games or movies but should be able to stream music and other audio from the primary PC. But the product's biggest limitation is price: 8" Windows Powered Smart Displays are expected to debut in the $750 range, which is far too expensive for such a small display, especially for consumers. Another problem: Despite being marketed as a home solution, the displays work only with XP Professional Edition, a more expensive Windows version aimed at businesses. If the devices' prices come down quickly enough and Microsoft can figure out a way to make them work with XP Home Edition, the products could become quite popular. I'd love to have smart displays scattered throughout my home, especially if the technology could be built into products such as TV sets or digital photo frames.

Xbox Live
The Xbox gaming system will get a major boost this November when Microsoft releases Xbox Live, the online gaming service that will let gamers compete against other players over broadband Internet connections. Xbox Live even ships with microphones and headsets so that players can speak to each other during games, and if my past experiences in gaming deathmatches are any indication, this feature alone should sell plenty of Xboxes.

Bringing It All Together
OK, so Microsoft is planning to launch a lot of consumer-oriented products. Big deal, right? Not exactly. In the best Microsoft tradition, the company designed many of these products to work together in ways that outweigh the benefits of using them separately. For example, users who sign up for MSN 8 can purchase Microsoft Broadband Networking products at a discount, and Microsoft will then freely support shared Internet connections and home networks, a feature other ISPs don't offer. Xbox users can also tie into the Microsoft Broadband Networking products, thanks to the game console's Ethernet port, and partake in Xbox Live. And because the Media Center PCs are full XP-based PCs, they're compatible with the Microsoft Broadband Networking products and MSN 8; you can even attach a Windows Powered Smart Display to them, although the high-bandwidth Media Center interface won't work over wireless networks. But the combination of Media Center and Windows Powered Smart Displays is still pretty powerful. You can use these products in tandem with a typical TV to get the best of both worlds—Media Center through the TV and PC tasks through the smart display.

Microsoft's synergy in the home is somewhat inspiring, especially after you've had the chance to use two or more of these products simultaneously. If you're a Windows user who wants to take the next step toward a truly connected home, the company's integrated solutions are worth investigating.

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