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Gates sees a home server in your future

Microsoft's chairman tells why the average person wants a server and explains why they won't have to be a geek to make it work. Photos: Gates on home servers

LAS VEGAS--Having helped get PCs into most American's homes, Bill Gates now wants people to bring in a server.

As part of his keynote address Sunday at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, Gates is showing off Windows Home Server--a consumer device to serve as a central storage place for digital photos, music and other media. The first products are due out later this year from Hewlett-Packard and others. The goal is to get devices that can cost less than $500.

In the first of a two-part interview, Microsoft's chairman talks with CNET about why the average person wants a server, why they won't need a degree in computer science to run it and what hurdles remain before consumers reach the true digital home.

Coming Monday, in part two, Gates talks about the changes that are coming with Windows Vista, the legacy of Windows XP and what he has planned for the next makeover of his own digital living room.

Q: One of the things you are talking about at CES is a new home server? Why does the average home need a server?
Gates: If you have got multiple PCs, then you want files that are available all the time no matter which PCs are turned on or off, and you'd also like to have a server that when you just add storage it automatically takes advantage of that. You don't have to think about drive names or moving files around

In fact you get redundancy so that even if you have physical failures you have recoverability.

Does that mean that every home is going to need a server administrator?
Gates: No it's important to look hard at what the focus of that device has been, which is the easy setup and no ongoing need to worry about it at all. Remote access has been hard to set up. We've focused in on that. Making it so that it is all recoverable has been hard. Adding storage has been hard. We feel great about what we've done in this product. We think it is a real leadership product. Homes with multiple PCs will find it very attractive.

Having the right hardware is obviously one piece of the puzzle. In terms of getting the types of things that people want to share across the home, one of the keys is content. Are things where they need to be yet? Is Hollywood where it needs to be?
Gates: There's this challenge of balancing the need of creative people to get paid for their work and the ease of use that people want moving these things around between devices. No one has gotten people to agree to something that strikes a perfect balance there. We're encouraging the content companies to actually take a little bit more risk and be more flexible in those things. That's a little bit of an impediment.

In terms of the idea of a home server, is this really mainstream? How long is it before 10 percent, say, of households have a home server?
Gates: That's a good question. As you get a product that's, say, well under $1,000, viewed as just dead simple to use, I think a reasonable percentage of multiple PC homes will find this very attractive. But, we're entering the market new.

We don't know the volume, but we think it enables some scenarios, and it will be a good business for us. Obviously, a lot of the technology we use there we get to use in servers that are used in business-type environments as well.

You're talking about Microsoft's traditional approach where you guys do the software and other folks do the hardware. Do companies like Apple that do both the hardware and the software--do they have any kind of advantage when it comes to entertainment-type scenarios?
Gates: They have a huge disadvantage in the kind of variety--design points, price points, distribution approaches. They just don't get that. They do get to do this tightly coupled monolithic design. What we have to make sure is that we are working with the partners so we get that creativity of the close coupling while the variety of partners is such that we get something they really don't have.

If you want to point to why the Windows PC has become such a successful, central thing, that enabling of partners, including all those great hardware partners, I'd say that's been very big.

Here you see Toshiba doing SideShow (a Vista feature that enables a secondary display). You see Sony doing this beautiful Media Center, living room-type device. You see HP bringing in this touch-screen capability on a very nice form factor. This show kind of gives you a sense that the world needs variety when there are hundreds of millions of these things that are being sold.

Does Microsoft need to tie more of its entertainment products together? For instance, you have a media center that can record television (programs). Shouldn't I be able to get that content and take it with me on the Zune?
Gates: Absolutely. There's a lot of scenarios that we can drive that make these things more connected. I think almost all our announcements here have this connected theme to them. Just take Xbox 360. It's an extender for any PC in the house to project that into the living room. It can let you watch high-definition movies that you download. It can let you connect up your HD DVD player. You play the best games standalone and live. And, the new announcement is that this is an IPTV set-top box. So our partners in IPTV let you have your full TV experience with the power of Xbox there.