Microsoft has been showing various worthies around its new "M Home" in Notting Hill. Yes, it's another House Of The Future! You may not be surprised that in the future, we'll all have Microsoft Media Center PCs in every room, all networked to each other and a central home server that stores incoming digital entertainment from satellite, terrestrial and broadband. And, er, that's it. There are some other bits — a monitor that can turn into a mirror, which I've seen in Houses Of The Future of the past and nowhere else, a digital picture frame and an I.TECH virtual keyboard. It's a sad commentary on the paucity of Microsoft's imagination that the I.TECH is the only device that actually gets the visitors excited, and a worrying hint that the rest of the tech might not be working too well when it turns out that the keyboard is the only thing that the hacks are allowed to actually use. Unfortunately, it doesn't connect to anything else — it has Bluetooth, but the "drivers aren't ready". Ah, well. There's a Webcam in the kitchen but none whatsoever in the bedroom, which seems not to reflect sordid reality, although that mirrored monitor was facing the bed...
There are just a couple of small details to be sorted out before the dream becomes reality. With a large proportion of the UK already enjoying digital entertainment from home servers in the shape of Sky Plus as well as cable and digital terrestrial personal video recorders, why would they want to pay substantially more for PCs that do the same thing? That's if they do the same thing: Sky has gone to some trouble making the Sky Plus service tempting and easy to use, and it's not clear why it would want to hand over any aspect of that to Microsoft. Likewise, other service providers will be only too aware that getting pally with Redmond is not necessarily like cutting a deal with other companies. Oh, and did Microsoft mention DRM during its tour of its bit-stuffed home? No. Odd that.
Here's a prediction for you. The digital home will happen, and it won't be Microsoft. It will happen when the bits and pieces are cheap, diverse and interoperate, so we can go out and pick up stuff from a wide variety of options that won't break the bank if it doesn't quite work. Ask yourself how many of the flood of cheap multi-format DVD players have Microsoft software in, and how many have Linux or similar. Not only does open source software open up the field to hundreds of manufacturers who could never afford to develop the complex software needed to cope with the many variations at the cutting edge of digital entertainment — DivX, Xvid, what have you — but it ensures that new ideas can be propagated very quickly. That will go double for the sort of networking and interface ideas necessary to make the domestic distributed electronic environment a place we want to live in. It also keeps the costs down: how many DVD players can you buy for the cost of one XP licence?
So, uh, thanks to Microsoft for the show, but the future we want is being built out here already.