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Microsoft's digital hub for the home uncovered

More details on Windows Home Server, which aims to bring order to the multiple files and devices spread around the house.

With Windows Home Server, Microsoft aims to bring order to consumers' messy digital lives--and to define a new product category.

Company Chairman Bill Gates launched the personal server push during his keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show on Sunday, saying that partner Hewlett-Packard plans to offer an HP MediaSmart Server based on the design this fall.

The Windows Home Server is for households that want to share storage among multiple PCs or Xboxes game consoles. It will provide automatic backup, easier storage expansion and connectivity among different devices, including Zune media players, Gates said.

HP MediaSmart
HP MediaSmart Server.

"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," Gates noted in an interview with CNET

Since the launch, more concrete details of Windows Home Server have dribbled out.

Windows Home Server, which has been in the making for about three years according to a Microsoft employee on the development team, is based on Windows Server, the software found in corporate data centers. But this edition is meant to run in a person's closet or other out-of-sight location.

The server will not come with a monitor input, keyboard or mouse. It needs a power source and a wired Ethernet connection to operate.

People interact with it through the Windows Home Server Console, which runs on a separate machine. The application organizes data, such as music and photos, and it also keeps track of user accounts, according to C.J. Saretto, the lead program manager.

A person can set up shared folders according to the type of files stored--such as music, photos and videos--and then comb through these using Windows Desktop Search. Files on Macintosh, Linux machines and PCs with Windows editions before Windows XP can also be shared.

Media from devices that support Windows Media Connect--which is included in Windows XP Service Pack 2, Windows Vista and Xbox 360--can be streamed from the server.

Backup plans
The system is designed so that people can easily add new storage devices and get a view of the available "pool" of hard-drive space available, Saretto said.

All PCs connected to the server are automatically backed up every day, allowing people to revert to older versions. Microsoft designed the backup capabilities specifically for consumers, rather than businesses, so that they are space-efficient and reduce redundant copies, Saretto added.

The console also gives a "health snapshot" of the network, alerting owners if any of their PCs is vulnerable in any way--for example, if it has an open firewall or an out-of-date virus definition.

A Remote Connect Web site planned by Microsoft will be designed to help people get data or run applications remotely via an Internet connection. The company will provide customers with a personalized Internet address from Windows Live with no monthly fees, according to the home server's product description.

Gates did not offer any volume goals for Windows Home Server. But he said at a press reception after his CES keynote speech that Microsoft's entry "will be helpful." He added that future editions of the product will based on Longhorn Server rather than Windows Server 2003, as is now the case.

But clearly, Microsoft believes there's a substantial market for "digital hubs" in the home.

The company on Monday released a "backgrounder" document for Windows Home Server that stated more than 30 percent of 106 million U.S. households in 2005 had more than one PC in the home, and 18 percent were using a local area network connection.

"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," Gates said in the interview. "But we're entering the market new."

CNET's Ina Fried contributed to this report.