Will Windows Home Server be Microsoft's next flop?

Will Windows Home Server be Microsoft's next flop?

Summary: Although you don't hear about them too often, Microsoft has had its own share of flops in the market. Perhaps the most legendary of these was the ill-fated Microsoft Bob.

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Although you don't hear about them too often, Microsoft has had its own share of flops in the market. Perhaps the most legendary of these was the ill-fated Microsoft Bob. But one of the other flops that comes to mind -- one that required a good deal of investment from the hardware community -- was the Smart Display. In principle, the Smart Display -- a wireless display that could remotely control a PC -- was a neat idea. But practically speaking the cost and complexity of it made it a non-starter when compared to just buying another notebook.

Today, I'm reading an announcement regarding Microsoft's Windows Home Server and it occurred to me that this is a product that could easily follow in the footsteps of projects like Bob and Smart Display. Like with Smart Display, Microsoft has hardware partners (HP is on the list that Mary Jo Foley posted here) that appear willing to follow the software giant where ever it goes. But could this be a case of the blind leading the blind?

Yesterday, in a post having to do with the many unrelated forces, that taken together, represent Microsoft's most significant challenge in its roughly 32 year history, I wrote:

But even as its technologies improve over time, its journey to one corner of the universe (where computing is mostly about running Microsoft shrink-wrapped software on Microsoft operating systems, accessing Microsoft formats) while so many others are headed in completely the opposite direction has produced divisions in the industry that have ultimately made Microsoft less exciting to watch.

This of course is relative. If you're a Microsoft devotee, it's probably exhilarating to watch.

When I returned from my last vacation, sitting in my inbox was an e-mail from Microsoft's Public Relations team regarding Windows Home Server (released to manufacturing this past July). I hardly got past the subject line when I thought to myself, "Windows Home Server? They've got to be kidding. What on earth are they thinking?"

The funny thing is that four or five years ago, I would have been in love with this idea of a server operating system that targeted the home. In fact, I was in love with the idea. With no server positioned at the home market, I decided to come up with my own. Based on Red Hat Linux, I built one that offered the basics to my family: shared directories to which photos could be copied (and through Linux's symlinks, those directories were accessible on the Web using Apache Server coupled with TZO's dynamic DNS service), shared printing, and a central hard drive to which the other PCs could be backed up. In fact, that Linux box still serves as our residential print server to this day.

But more often than not, I find myself hating the idea that I'm running a server in the house. Once you set up a server and people start using it, it isn't long before you've bitten off more than you can chew and suddenly, your role as the residential IT manager takes on an entirely new dimension. Four or five years ago when there weren't many options, having a server in your house made some sense. Today, if you ask me, given the alternatives (especially the online ones), it doesn't make any sense. Of all the different kinds of technology I'd like to have in my house, something as complicated as a computer running a server operating system is at the bottom of the list.

Microsoft is of course going out of its way to make sure that Windows Home Server is not complicated. The company apparently ran a beta that involved 100,000+ testers. The WHS Web site uses words like "easy" when talking about setting users' access rights and phrases like "unprecedented simplicity" in an effort to compare WHS favorably to another way of creating shared drive space on a residential network: attaching a network attached storage (NAS) device to it.

But let's be honest (and this has nothing to do with Microsoft, it's the same for any server operating system vendor). Words like "easy" and "simplicity" have always been a part of the server marketing lexicon because everyone knows that servers are inherently difficult to work with.

In many ways, WHS exemplifies the way Microsoft is swinging right while the rest of the computer industry seems to be swinging left.

The tagline on the WHS home page pretty much says it all: "It's all coming together." Presumably, we want the benefits of WHS ("Now, it's easy to keep and share documents, photos, video, and music" says the Web site) to be delivered to us from one central location in our house. But do we really want it to all come together? Or, judging by the success and usage of many online alternatives, is there evidence that we actually prefer things spread apart, but loosely coupled?

My first thought on the idea of a home server is that Apple would have done it already if the market wanted it (and done it better than anybody else could hope to do it). In fact, in many ways, Apple's offering of AppleTV serves as evidence that architecturally, the last thing consumers want to do in their houses is push data from one PC to another. Instead, in peer-to-peer fashion, pulling on existing data from an existing PC as AppleTV does or as iTunes can do (with the outcome essentially being the same as having an additional and central server) is diametrically the opposite approach to the direction Microsoft is going.

Quite honestly however, I think Apple has it wrong too. Big businesses are loathe to tightly couple their technologies because, despite everything their solution providers tell them, once a chain of integrated systems is created, the ripple effect of something breaking is often unbearable. It's not about anti-integration as much as it is going for something more loosely coupled that isn't nearly so brittle. In many ways, the IT politics in my house were like the IT politics in a business. When I first told my wife and teenage son they had this new shared infrastructure at their disposal, the first question from my wife was "What happens if the server's hard drive crashes?" I had the answer to the question in my head (I'll develop some sort of backup process) but the last thing I wanted to do was share it with my wife and my son because then I'd be really committed. Technology should be about fewer commitments. Not more.

The next thing I knew, there was zero adoption of my new centralized infrastructure (or at least the central storage part). What I was left with (the part that's still operational today) was a glorified print server: something I can't wait to replace with something far simpler, turnkey, and headache free -- a cheap wireless printer (which, for all intents and purposes, is an appliance).

If installing local hardware invites all sorts of support-related issues that you weren't really prepared to handle, then the direction that the rest of the industry seems to be taking (the industry swinging left part) where services on the Web take the place of hardware you might have installed in your house are a validation that your not alone. Particularly since those services are getting used.

Take something as simple as photosharing and ask yourself what makes more sense: buying a server, installing it in your house (connecting it to the network), showing family members how to share and/or backup photos, music, and videos with it, and then supporting it for the rest of your life? Or, using an online service like AOL's recently announced Bluestring where AOL is saddled with the responsibility of ongoing reliability and support? (Note, I'm not even considering the fact that long term, we'll all want access to that content on our mobile devices and how a home-based server running over a paltry DSL or cable modem connection is probably the least desirable approach to that problem). Or maybe, you'll go for some combination of services from multiple service providers like Flickr for photosharing and iBackup.com (or even Microsoft's own Live SkyDrive) for online backup/filesharing and loosely couple them together with your personal start page at iGoogle.com.

Longer term, for local hardware (even appliances like NAS devices) to stay relevant, they'll need to be bundled with online services. Let's say you do want to put a central NAS device on your network. Much the same way today's cheap wireless printers are configurable through their front panels, the NAS makers will find a way for you to programmatically keep your NAS(es) mirrored to an online service so that, if the NAS should ever fail (and it will), recovery will be almost as simple as getting a replacement NAS unit. Turnkey solutions like this are much closer to what consumers and small businesses want than solutions that require administrative expertise.

Full-blown servers? Well, they're an entirely different story. They have no choice but to violate the KISS principle and once you cross a certain threshold into the non-turnkey world, you end up with many of the same headaches that businesses are finally getting hip to, and trying to get rid off. For example, salesforce.com would be a complete failure if all businesses wanted to do was run their own software on their own servers. Can consumers learn something from businesses about what it takes to run successful IT? You betcha.

Still not buying off on my logic?

Earlier today, Microsoft's PR contacted me with an announcement that tomorrow, "Microsoft will release a first update to Windows Home Server via Windows Update." Updating servers (not to mention the all important upgrade that will one day be in the wings)? That sounds exactly like the sort of thing I, as a homeowner, want to be thinking about. Not. The e-mail points to a blog entry with details that couldn't better emphasize the complexity involved in running servers -- headaches homeowners can't possibly want. Here for example are some of that blog entry's bullet points:

  • The out-of-the-box experience warns users not to reboot Windows Home Server while updates are being downloaded and applied. [Now] a text message has been added to the "Windows Home Server Update" step of the home server setup explicitly instructing users to not reboot their home servers.
  • Windows Home Server Connector Firewall Blocking Issues: The installation of the Windows Home Server Connector software can fail due to firewall software installed on a home computer. The Windows Home Server Connector software and corresponding help files have been updated to help further identify and troubleshoot issues with firewall software or incorrect proxy server settings on home computers.
  • Based on feedback from our customers and partners we have made changes to provide additional guidance on creating user accounts and passwords on Windows Home Server. The User Accounts tab in the Windows Home Server Console has been improved to provide additional information and user education about user accounts and passwords to first-time users of the product.
  • The file system driver installation required to mount a backup on a user’s home computer incorrectly reports that it requires a reboot to complete installation. A text message has been added to the Opening Backup dialog to ignore the reboot request.

Translated (for the benefit of the consumers that WHS is targeted at): "Servers are complicated. More complicated that you want to know." After reading this (particularly the parts I boldfaced), I heard myself thinking "The people at Microsoft are clearly nuts." Again, WHS is barely out of the gate and already, the best Microsoft can do in terms of dealing with ease of use and integration problems is to offer more help and education where, what consumers really want is to just plug it in and have it start working.

There's a reason that salesforce and companies like it are hotter than anything else on the market. They just work. Updates and upgrades require little else but the refresh button on a browser. Worrying about system reliability is someone else's headache.

If you buy-off on the theory that the world seems to be heading in the opposite direction that Microsoft wants to lead it, then you can't help but wonder what the long term prospects for an offering like Windows Home Server are. Not good, if you ask me.

Topics: Hardware, Microsoft, Networking, Operating Systems, Servers, Software, Storage, Windows

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150 comments
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  • Why I think it's a flop

    Here's why I think it will be flop.

    Consumers like something they can use directly. A server is not something people use directly. As much functionality it's just no something a home user will spend money on. Some will but it's just not something average joe will spend his money one. They'd probably want a second computer, a laptop or X-box 360 first. The Home Server really will be a last on the list purchase assuming people have money left over.

    This also is a cut on the Home Server. Personally I think it's a good idea. But I'm also of the opinion that there are other thing I want first like a Laptop and an X-Box 360 or Wii. Really when I get right down to it I'd rather just buy a new PC and use my old as a Server using Linux as it's free. If I had money to burn I'd buy a Home Server though as it appears to have more functionality working with Windows but Linux will do if I haven't got the cash.
    voska
    • I dont think it would be a flop, may not be a hit

      I would have to dis-agree with you on that one. Do you see all the people buying external HDD??? for $100 - $200 or even a NAS?? for $250+. what are they are buying it for? for extra storage right?? Instead on having a clean, formatted external HDD WHS comes with software that automatically handles all your media files. I dont think thats a negative point, unless the price point of WHS is significantly higher than a similar capacity NAS.

      I also have to disagree with the article regarding online alternatives.Online alternatives are only best suitable for photos. What about Audio and Video files whose size is >500MB. Leave alone HD formats in GB's how are these going to be stored online??? even with a very fast internet connection. it would take days to sync your content. You wouldnt even think about streaming these content from these online storages right?? thts why you need a central storage.

      and coming to peer-peer file sharing in a home network. It is already being used by every one. The only need for WHS / external HDD / NAS is when you need extra storage space. You wont have 200GB+ hard drives in your laptops right?? so you'll need a lotta space for saving those HD movies you downloaded and share with other user in your home network. Thts why you'll need central storage like NAS / WHS.
      5ri
      • No way

        The only people who will buy this product are you, Mike Cox, Loverock, No Ax, and Non Zealot. No one else will.
        DarthRidiculous
        • I'll buy it if I can get it a OEM copy with a new Hard Drive.NT

          >
          bka1959
          • pricing

            i've seen an oem copy priced at about $179 at one of my distributors.
            g_keramidas@...
          • You Can Buy OEM

            Once released for sale, you can buy the OEM copy of WHS at most OEM resellers. NewEgg comes to mind . . .
            nlward
        • LOOK EVERYONE!@#*&#@#! HE MENTIONS ME!!!

          I get talked about every single day. :)
          Loverock Davidson
          • careful with the pride, we talk about toilet paper too !!

            easy on the boast there rocky, youll break a leg patting yourself on the head
            educateme@...
        • I'll Buy it . . .

          Wrong! There are at least 1000 of us waiting for the OEM version, as well as the hardware version of Windows Home Server to be available on store shelves.
          nlward
      • Just don't see it

        I just don't see average joe going for this. Microsoft tech nerds sure but not average joe. There are just too many places for average joe to spend his money. At $599 starting price I just don't see average joe jumping on this. Maybe at $299 but not $599.
        voska
        • Considering a 750GB external drive is @ 240.00 US -

          Why would anyone pay more to Microsoft and HP for a Windows Home Server? Microsoft is out in the parking lot on this one - with only the 'how dare you buy anything but Microsoft warez' folks to keep them company.

          An internal 750GB hard drive is only @ 185.00 US - two cheaper alternatives to the Microsoft tax!
          nomorems
          • It's more then an external HDD

            It appears that people just want to look at WHS as an external hard drive or a NAS and are failing to see the other benefits. How about nightly automatic back ups of every computer connected to the server AND functionality for reloading any of those computers if they fail in some way? Or how about free remote access from the Internet to any computer on the network? While I agree that the average Joe isn't going to jump on this, I think WHS is a great solution to multiple problems that most computer owners face. The most significant of these is the automatic backups and the automatic replication of data. Many people do not back up properly or regularly and not because they aren't aware that they should but because they don't want to be troubled with it. I'm one of those people most of the time so I personally am really looking forward to a WHS.
            mmadink
          • You're right on one point - They don't want to be troubled with it...

            Quote: "Many people do not back up properly or regularly and not because they aren't aware that they should but because they don't want to be troubled with it."

            So what makes you think they want to be troubled with installing security patches on a regular basis, not to mention bug fixes and other updates, and the inevitable system upgrade? I think, if anything, most people will opt to buy a second external hard drive and using that to back up to every so often, just because it's a lot simpler and probably what they already do now.
            Flying Pig
        • i agree tht price will be the big factor

          As I've also written in my previous comment. WHS would be a success if its price points are matching the existing NAS alternatives.

          So, the real question is not whether WHS is usefull (it is more usefull than an external HDD or NAS), but the real question is its price. If there's a 750GB NAS for $250 and 750GB WHS for $300 ~ $350, It is competetive. But $599 would be a looser. Thats too much a price difference for the extra functionality.
          5ri
          • Price -GB

            I agree I already 2.2 TB of SATA space so why would I spend 599+ for less storage. I had this running during the beta run and it was pretty good, it was very simple to setup and use even though I would have liked to have more control over the backups. I would not buy it OEM for $180 maybe $50 otherwise I'll stick with my 2008 Server setup for my home stuff as well as my business stuff
            stuoutlaw1@...
      • I use a print server and NAS at home.

        we have a half dozen or so PC's throughout the house, connected by wire and wireless network. I have purchased a small print server (Dlink 301U). This was really cheap. I simply plugged it into my network, pointed the PC's to it, and GO!
        I have also recently purchased a NDAS (Network Direct Attached Storage) device. That just plugs into the network as well. You do have to install drivers on your PC. This simply looks like another local HD, on each of the PC's.

        There is no updating Software on either of these devices. I backup the device the same way I backup the normal PCs. I use a real backup product, not the built-in MS backup.

        Very flexible and no problems so far.
        I am Gorby
    • It's not aimed at you

      It's aimed at people who would never, ever consider Linux because to do what this system does in Linux takes a lot more effort in an area that the average home user doesn't want to mess with. It will appeal to anyone who has lost files of their pc or had major crashes for any reason.
      JimSatterfieldW
    • But Why?

      Ok, everyone that has posted a reply here knows the answer but Joe Consumer does not. Backup?? When was the last time one of your neighbors backed up data? Having a central place to store data, can you say Internet?

      No, the normal guy on the street will see no reason to buy one of these (too bad because that is exactly the type that could benifit most). The geeks among us might buy one but I think most of those would take a Linux path. The largest market I see is a very small business looking for a deal or a want-a-be PC geek with more money than knowledge.
      peterlamonica
    • What I'd want

      is an app server. Install Office once use it from any machine (games would be nice too, but I generally play games from whatever machine is fastest).

      Ultimately, i think I'll end up with a 2 drive NAS with one for storage and the other for backups.
      notsofast
    • A lot of potential for WHS.

      I think the home server has a lot more potential than the article indicates. People are growing more and more techno savvy by the day. Kids are picking up technology even more.

      The home server can serve as a backup incase any desktop or notebook bites the dust. I would say for families, it would be a better and safer photo sharing tool than the websites like Flickr or Kodak. It could serve as personal messaging board for families and friends spread across the world.

      WHS could also be valuable for internet gaming and be an alternative to the pay for sites across the net. Who needs Xbox Live if you could use the home servers as an nexus point for playing Halo 3? You wouldn't have to pay Battle.net a dime to play World of Warcraft online.

      For home businesses, WHS would allow people to have the flexability of a server. They could host their own websites and do changes faster. The bottom line is that until WHS completely flops, lets not bury it before it has a chance to fly or fall on its own merit.
      Solid Jedi Knight