Tonight, I finally got around to setting up my Windows Home Server… although I’ve been testing the betas since it stopped being called “Q”. My new system is pretty much identical to the old one, Intel Celeron D, but with bumped up case (Antec Sonata), Graphics (Radeon X700) and Chipset (Intel D915). Overpowered, but hey, when you’ve got spare parts… you use them. And with that, I came up with this blog post…
Microsoft is already hard at work on the next generation of Windows Home Server. I have a one-word suggestion for them: router.
I see the future of Windows Home Server as going two directions… and hopefully, the product will emerge to serve both (much as WHS currently aims to serve both mainstream and enthusiast markets). In fact, these two directions will serve each audience.
The first is the mainstream audience. And, as I suggested above, the mainstream audience will probably be best served by integrating WHS with a traditional router product offering. The logical reasoning for this is that people resist change. Windows Home Server is a breakthrough product, unfortunately, it’s hard to relay the benefits to a typical consumer. Most consumers want centralized PC Backups. A lot of users want online access to their files. A good number of them want a simple way to have a web site run out of their house. However, nobody wants another box in their house.
Combining WHS with a router into a single product offering is a great way to convey the benefits of WHS to a user. After all, the mainstream WHS is headless. In addition, integrating a wireless router into the product makes setup much easier… WHS can UPnP into the router… plus OEM Preinstallation Protocol can auto-configure everything. You just plug in the router to your ISP, pop in the Connector software, and setup both your router and WHS at the same time. Users see the WHS platform as a logical extension of the router… what shares your internet connection, now offers all the great things WHS does.
Now, some will balk at paying $499 for a router. But, I don’t think many will. In fact, I think once this happens WHS will really take off. People will know what WHS does better if those selling points are added to the selling points of a router. It’s no longer “another computer” in your house… it’s a router that assists your computers, and takes your documents mobile. Cost-cutting measures can probably bring the selling price down to $299 (for example, making the hard drives an add-on component, and just include a small single hard drive in the initial offering). eSATA enables a router to have a couple under bays for storage expansion. Once people are hooked on WHS, they can add storage post-sale. The router maker gets a huge profit margin boost over the typical commodity router profits… and everyone’s happy.
The second market is the enthusiast market. That market I see the future in Media Center. Windows Home Server could really benefit from integrating Windows Media Center. Hackers have already managed to get Media Center running on the platform, so it is certainly not an extraordinary feat. With CableCARDs, and (hopefully) upcoming QAM and DirecTV options, this just makes sense. Having one single point of presence for media really improves things.
The Media Center team will have to make a few modifications to the code for it to be successful. In other words, hacking the existing MCE code onto WHS isn’t going to cut it. I see a few minor-to-moderate changes being needed:
1) Support for centralized storage and remote recording devices. If Media Center is going to continue to operate in its current configuration it has to work flawlessly with WHS’s storage matrix. This is really minor, in fact, many have already pulled this off with a few registry tweaks.
2) Softsled. Adding a software-based MCE client for Client PCs would be crucial. That way, clients could become Media Center Extenders for the WHS system. The WHS system could then be loaded with up to four CableCARDs (or DirecTV tuners, or whatever). And every PC and TV in the house could connect and use a single system to manage all their TV. That’s the way TV should work.
3) Transcoding & Placeshifting. Adding WebGuide to the team already ensured this was one future path of Media Center. This will allow the WHS to serve Live TV and Recorded TV to a whole host of devices… from anywhere in the world. That’s a key requirement of anything WHS does, so this is crucial to have added. Bonus points for offering H.264 and other standards-based, non Windows Media transcoding.
Best of all, all of these features on their own would enhance Media Center in Vista (or Windows 7), so adding them to WHS would improve the entire Windows family.
Now, these goals are ambitious, and I’m about 750 miles from Redmond… however, if Microsoft deploys both of these features in the next generation of Media Center, they will be better sandbagging their trenches in the battle for control of your TV, and your web server. Microsoft knows that serving both the mainstream user, and the enthusiast are important for winning in any product offering. Doing both of these will make WHS a killer app in both markets. I’m not bashing Microsoft for lacking either in the first generation of WHS… WHS is a new, and breakthrough product with a lot of room to grow.