Will a Home Server Be Under Your Christmas Tree?

At CES 2007, Bill Gates announced that Microsoft was developing a Windows® Home Server, saying, "As computers and digital media become more and more central to family life, we need better ways to organize, share, and protect digital content and information at home. 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 organize their day-to-day lives, explore their interests, and share their memories with the people they care about."

Gates announced that HP would partner with Microsoft to develop a simplified system that would connect all of the computers in a household, not only allowing them to be backed up automatically, but to share digital files throughout the system. In the months since that announcement, additional manufacturers have announced WHS products to be released in the near future, including Fujitsu Siemens Computers, Iomega, Gateway, LaCie, and Medion.

That future is getting very near. Microsoft has finalized the WHS software package and has "released to manufacturer" (RTM), which means that September's CEDIA show in Denver will undoubtedly see the debut of products set for release in time for the holiday shopping season.

This week, we met with Joel Sider, Windows Home Server senior product manager, for a sneak peek at the first WHS server. Since the product he was showing us is in the last stages of release, he requested that we not reveal its manufacturer or its price, so at the risk of sounding coy, we'll just say it's a well-known brand and the price was just a smootch higher than, say, a Mac mini.

The unit wasn't much larger than the four hard drives it contained (it will be released in 500GB and 1TB capacities). It has an Ethernet connection and four USB ports. In other words, the hardware isn't cutting edge, but that, Sider explained, was intentional. "Windows Home Server is aimed at people who don't want to be computer experts," he said. "We wanted it to be plug-and-play and to be reliable.

"For example, everybody knows they need to do regular backups, but almost nobody remembers to—WHS automatically backs up every computer in your network at intervals you can select. You can schedule your backups for times when nobody is inconvenienced."

All computers on the network can also share any media contained on any of them, or users can centrally store the data on the server. WHS also lets consumers access files on another computer within the network, or even to log on from their email to recover files they have forgotten to take with them.

One of the features that struck home for me—having just gone through a computer crash that cost me several days of file recovery—was WHS's ability to monitor the operating status of all connected computers.

I should probably observe that I live in a Mac household, but I was impressed with the WHS interface and intuitive feel. "Well, you should feel comfortable with it," Sider said. "If you're on a network, whether you're on a Mac or a PC, you'll have the same level of usability. Obviously, WHS is designed to seamlessly integrate with WMP, but we're not blind to the fact that networks are composed of different kinds of computers."

Is Windows Home Server going to be a success? I'd bet yes. Households increasingly have multiple computers and tons of digital files, including photographs, music files, movies, and even TV. People get frustrated when they can't get to all that "convenience" simply because it's on another machine—any product that makes that existing content simpler to access could be hugeif people "get" that it makes life easier.

Simplicity is what made the iPod huge, not cuteness, and certainly not price. From what I've seen, Windows Home Server has that level of simplicity going for it. I seriously thought about grabbing the sample Sider brought with him and dashing down 42nd Street with it under my arm. I'm betting a lot of other people will feel the same way.

I can't wait for CEDIA.