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Beyond the PC: Are we there yet?

Microsoft's Mike Toutonghi has had enough of the beige box. It's his job to push the PC past its programming basics to become an uber-control center that talks to your refrigerator and turns off the sprinklers.

"Windows Update would like to apply the newest spongy bread virus patch to your refrigerator and microwave."

Whether consumers regularly hear messages like that one in the future depends on how well Microsoft's eHome division fulfills Chairman Bill Gates' vision of Windows everywhere.

Microsoft founded the division 11 months ago as part of the Windows group and charged it with using the operating system to deliver new products and services to the home. If successful, consumers could find themselves running a variety of appliances and consumer electronics devices on their computers. And Microsoft would be recasting a new role for the PC: an entertainment device at the center of the home, rather than just a beige box used for work or surfing the Web.

During this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, eHome is coming out of its research closet to show off prototype products leveraging Windows XP and infrastructure from the Microsoft's .Net software-as-a-service strategy.

Mike Toutonghi, 39, vice president of eHome, spoke with CNET News.com about the division's strategy and some of the technologies consumers are clamoring for. Interestingly, much of the messaging is similar to that touted by Apple Computer, which is delivering new consumer products at this year's Macworld Expo in San Francisco.

Q: What is the major goal of your division?
A: We're focused on bringing entertainment, communications and convenience to consumers' homes. That's really our mission. To do that, we're going to work on connecting PCs across the network with devices, including consumer electronics, and work on providing simple entertainment and communications scenarios and providing a way for partners...to deliver value through that environment.

What existing Microsoft assets will you use to deliver on this vision?
That's a very good question. Let's say you have a movie you want to download to your PC. To make that happen, we're really going to have to work well with the partners and the content owners, rights owner, and make sure we have a combination of digital rights technologies that address their needs as well as being easy for consumers to use. So we have heavy investments in digital rights management that we believe will make it much easier for us to deliver that kind of experience.

There are a lot of technologies we're excited about that can go beyond the PC. When you talk about real-time collaboration--audio, video and instant messaging--as an integrated form of communication across a wide variety of media, we have in Windows XP a lot of technologies we're excited about applying to a number of communications scenarios. So there are a lot of technologies we're excited about that can go beyond the PC, whether that be video, phone, video messaging, audio messaging, instant messaging or voice over IP. If you think about video recording or audio recording technologies, we actually have in XP personal recording and TV infrastructure we're going to be able to apply to the consumer space.

Microsoft isn't the first company to talk about these kinds of things. Why do you think you can make it work?
Yeah, a lot of people have talked about these things over the years. We've been working on these kinds of scenarios and what it is consumers want for the past nine years...With XP and the underlying technologies--whether that's networking technologies, communication technologies, or media technologies--we're finally at the stage where we can deliver these kinds of experiences to consumers. Now we're trying to understand how consumers would prioritize those experiences and how we can enrich their lives by applying those technologies to the kinds of problems they face today.

Could you have done this without XP, say, if we were living in the Windows 98 or Me days?
I don't think so. No.

In terms of .Net, how important are those technologies to the vision you are laying out?
.Net is actually very important. .Net is really a distributed environment, where people can really target a variety of devices and services and really bring them together, whether as the software or service offering to consumers, that covers a range of devices and services and brings them together to deliver an experience. We're definitely providing an ecosystem of devices working on that with partners and an ecosystem of services that will be absolutely targetable by the .Net developer platform and part of the .Net distributed environment.

Any idea what your first deliverable technology will be?
I can't talk about specific products, specific product features at this time. What I can say that our research, our focus groups, and what are partners and consumers are telling us, is that they're most interested in entertainment scenarios, whether those be videos, photos or music, those kinds of things. They're interested in communications scenarios. They're interested in how to bring those things together in a way to make them simple, accessible to the entire family. I have a 7-month-old. I have a baby monitor in there, but I also have a baby cam that's on the network.

Do you do digital music in your home? A very high volume of people do. It's very easy to collect a music library of the kinds of things you're interested in on your PC, and it's easier than on almost any other kind of device. But the PC today doesn't let you really enjoy that in your family room as easily as it should. All of those music libraries that are on people's PCs and all of that content on the Internet--whether it's a music service or Internet radio--you should be able to enjoy on a number of devices in the home.

Are you thinking of connecting to the devices through wireless?
Wireless is a very important technology for consumers. We're focused on the software...but the concept is you take your PC and other devices, and you don't add new wires. Wireless is very important to us delivering on this technology. But we're also looking at technologies that take advantage of existing wires in the home.

So what specifically are the focus groups telling you about technologies they would absolutely buy if you offered them?
One thing that is a common theme throughout everything is simplicity. Right now, there typically is the expert in the home that people would come to for consumer electronics or PC kind of experiences. It's to make the scenarios simple. Maybe I'm not understanding your question, so can you give me some more clarity about what you're looking for?

It's easy for you to talk in broad strokes, but people want to know what the technologies you are developing can do for them.
If you think about very high-end homes that might use (sophisticated) systems to distribute audio and video throughout the home that make it possible to do videoconferencing, baby cam, or security cameras throughout the home, those are the kinds of things we want to make accessible to the everyday consumer, affordably and in a simple way.

So instead of having a baby monitor with sound, I could have a baby camera in the room?
Exactly. I have a 7-month-old. I have a baby monitor in there, but I also have a baby cam that's on the network. For places where I don't put the baby cam, we have one of those old monitors. I am actually waiting with baited breath for the high-quality wireless camera that can enable me to move that anywhere at any time and have digital quality audio and video that will allow me to keep tabs on my son. That's a scenario that people are saying is very interesting.

How else could this kind of Windows XP technology be used?
The primary focus we're hearing is that there's all this exciting technology, personal video recorders, digital audio, digital video, DVD. When you talk about one of those kinds of things, it implies some kind of device you use to access that media. What we want to do is free the media from any specific device and make it available throughout the home. When someone sits down and says, "I feel like watching a movie," I don't say, "I feel like watching a DVD, downloaded movie, or something on HBO." What are the movies that are available to me, presented in a way that just allows me to select them? I don't want to worry about the details to watch them. If I happen to be in my bedroom, or downstairs in my bedroom, or in my den, I shouldn't have to worry about the device. I should be able to watch a movie.

How large is the eHome group?
We don't talk about specific sizes of divisions. I can say we are part of the larger Windows platform group. We are working with partners across the Windows Platform Group and across Microsoft to realize the vision. So we've got a high degree of commitment to this space.