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A call to simplify home networks, imaging

Home networks must be made "invisible" and digital imaging procedures simplified, says Microsoft exec Carl Stork during his WinHEC keynote.

LOS ANGELES--Microsoft general manager Carl Stork laid out the company's vision of the future of consumer technology today, emphasizing the importance of home networking and digital imaging, and addressing the company's own failures in these areas.

Stork focused his WinHEC keynote on these consumer technologies because many predict a huge looming market but also because they may offer another revenue stream for PC companies. In other words, these consumer technologies require the latest hardware, and as such are a great hope of the PC industry in blunting the overwhelming popularity--and bottom-line impact--of bare-bones, sub-$600 PCs.

Stork hyped Microsoft's Universal Plug and Play and the newly announced Windows Image Acquisition and Digital Content Management as ideal solutions to hurdles facing home networking and digital imaging, respectively.

Stork said that many homes already include basic make-shift networks consisting of two or more computers. More advanced home networking technology will be available this year, he said, acknowledging that today's tools, including the Windows platform, are far too complicated and unstable for typical users.

"We have something that is very powerful but with a complex infrastructure," that could potentially be too difficult for home users to set up. Home networks must be "invisible," he said. This transparency must extend to software developers, who may avoid writing applications for networked homes if the infrastructure appears too complex.

"If I'm going to write programs for it, I need a single abstracted way to view the network," he said. Microsoft's Universal Plug and Play is designed to simplify the process, he added. Universal Plug and Play is an open standard for connecting all manner of appliances, PCs, Internet access, and phone services, similar to Sun Microsystems' Jini. All successors to Windows 98, Windows 2000, and Windows CE will all support Universal Plug and Play, he said.

"The key to home networking is broadband," said Nathan Brookwood, an Insight 64 analyst, reacting to Microsoft's UpnP initiative from the trade show floor. Broadband high speed Internet access will appeal to PC users who want to distribute their newfound bandwidth among several PCs, he said.

Following widespread availability of broadband Internet access in driving home networking is Microsoft's plans to include Internet Connection Sharing in the next version of Windows 98, Second Edition, Brookwood said. These two factors will make home networking "pervasive" in the next 10 years he said, and widespread in five years.

Stork elaborated on comments Ballmer made regarding advancements in the UpNP initiative, including the formation of the UpnP Forum, including a new Web site, Microsoft and its partners are demonstrating a variety of different UpNP devices at WinHec this week.

Stork was joined by a Microsoft product manager to demonstrate UpNP, showing networks of PCs, Internet appliances, and "smart objects"--new Microsoft jargon for "fixed-purpose basic consumer electronics appliances," formerly known as lamps, refrigerators, and other home appliances which have been assimilated into the Microsoft networked home. The two also demonstrated how people can create digital displays of their art and photo collection, just like Microsoft chairman Bill Gates has done in his huge, high-tech home.

A picture of health
Stork also laid out his vision for the future of imaging, predicting that popular consumer applications will eventually drive business imaging applications. Imaging will move from today's business users--generally real estate and insurance users--to widespread presentation purposes "on a very broad scale," driven by individual users.

"I predict that editing and publishing pictures will be major growth drivers for our industry in the next couple of years if we can make it easy for users," said Stork.

Imaging is an important growth opportunity for the PC industry, he said, because it could potentially drive sales of high-end PCs. Imaging applications tax the PC hardware, and are really only feasible on systems running high-speed processors with lots of memory. "The PC has an enormous value to add to our experience working with pictures," he said.

However, there are many problems with consumer imaging that need to be solved before the technology can take off, he said. Data exchange in general is problematic, he said, when moving images from one application to another. Manipulating pictures is still imprecise, especially working with color images. There is also no standard way for dealing with images across the operating system, he said, a problem the next version of Windows 98, Second Edition, is targeted to fix.

Consumers using digital cameras and digital video cameras also complain about complex connection schemes, time-consuming downloads of images, non-intuitive interfaces when editing images, and poor picture quality of printed images. Images are harder to manager than text files, because they are larger in size and have arcane file names, are difficult to search, and other problems.

"This is rocket science," Stork said. "There's a lot of work to do."

Incorporating imaging improvements
Toward that end, Stork today announced Windows Media Services, an umbrella which covers Windows Image Acquisition architecture, Digital Content Management, and generic device support. These new services are aimed at delivering the company's new mantra of making computers "just work," in the words of Microsoft president Steve Ballmer.

Stork promised Windows 2000 improvements in imaging, including preview templates in Windows Explorer, increased software driver support, along with WIA and DCM.

"We think the pieces are coming together," he said, pointing out opportunities for hardware makers in the audience in memory, processor, and bandwidth limitations, and issuing a "Call to action: Make sure your product plans include imaging, make sure they install through Universal Plug and Play, install everything that needs to be done, please do work with us on future products, make sure we know what you're doing to make sure it fits in with our plans."