Microsoft Corp. tried–again—to push the company from the den into the living room, with a presentation on the “eHome” on Monday.
During a presentation at the companys Silicon Valley campus in Mountain View, Calif., Microsoft executives described yet another corporate effort make technology simple enough for all to use. The difference? Microsoft will apparently ask third parties to design the necessary hardware, tying it together with Microsoft software and services.
The “eHome” is Microsofts vision of a home tying together all of todays technology, and using it as a foundation for next-generation products. Microsofts goal, executives said, is to provide an overlying layer of software—”a cultural user interface”, one observer commented—and eliminate the fiddling, tweaking, and frustrating support calls necessary to tie one product to another.
“The consistent message were hearing is that this (technology) is fantastic, this is great,” said Mike Toutonghi, vice-president of the eHome Division at Microsoft, Redmond, Wash., of what he called a “plethora” of consumer technologies such as digital imaging, wireless networking, instant messaging, and others. “There is a very real risk that consumers will be in what we call technology overload.”
In a video demonstration, an actress used video email, video instant messaging, collaborated on a video presentation over the Internet with a friend, used voice commands, listened to video clips both on a PC and on an associated car stereo, and purchased and downloaded music.
Afterwards, Toutonghi pledged that Microsoft would use established standards as the initiaives framework, hinting but not specifying that .Net would be involved. Toutonghi said that there would be “opportunities” for third-party software companies like RealNetworks to get involved, following the companys “conversations” with the Department of Justice.
One key obstacle, Toutonghi noted, will be the number of legacy devices that Microsoft would need to support. In addition, although the company estimates that about 7 percent of its customers have broadband access, Microsoft must develop services that use slower connections as well. “If you look at the devices that are most popular, if you look at devices people care most about, those are the legacy devices,” Toutonghi said. “If we dont do that much it will be a harder road to hoe to deliver value to consumers.”
While the eHome division was formed in February of this year, Microsofts “digital living room” initiatives began about nine years ago with the Microsoft Home, a project that culminated in the controversial Microsoft Bob in March 1995. While Bob was Microsofts attempt to make its complex Windows operating systems user friendly, users criticized the software as patronizing, and the software was later dropped from Microsofts product lineup.
“Weve done a lot of consumer research, and we have a proving ground with our prototyping team,” Toutonghi said. “The feedback were getting is that were definitely on the right track.”
To date, the only concrete instantiation of Microsofts latest efforts has been a relationship with Samsung Electronics, which agreed to work with Microsoft and develop various “digital media” devices. Toutonghi did not say whether Microsoft would also manufacture the necessary hardware itself, as it has done before with a line of joysticks, mice, and keyboards. However, he did say that the Microsoft-designed Xbox would be a critical component, and he highlighted the companys efforts in UltimateTV, Microsofts personal video recorder/set-top box. Besides that, Toutonghi offered no product plans, or a timetable when third-party designs would be available.
The press conference was open to both press and analysts, as well as Microsoft employees. One objection was raised by a Microsoft employee himself, who worked in Microsofts TV division: what, he asked, was the point of making a PC TV-like when products like UltimateTV and WebTV add PC-like functionality to a consumer appliance? Toutonghi said the company had considered that, and invited the questioner to the next meeting.