Windows Home Server fan club beats me up for asking if WHS is Microsoft's next flop

Windows Home Server fan club beats me up for asking if WHS is Microsoft's next flop

Summary: Literally within minutes of each other (strangely coincidental), I received two e-mails -- one from a colleague and the other from someone who concealed their identity -- that basically told me I was out of line for questioning the chances that Microsoft's Windows Home Server will succeed. My colleague Shawn Morton over at sister CNET Networks property Tech Republic simply notified me that he had responded in his blog.

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Literally within minutes of each other (strangely coincidental), I received two e-mails -- one from a colleague and the other from someone who concealed their identity -- that basically told me I was out of line for questioning the chances that Microsoft's Windows Home Server will succeed. My colleague Shawn Morton over at sister CNET Networks property Tech Republic simply notified me that he had responded in his blog. The headline of his post -- Has David Berlind even used Windows Home Server? -- probably could not do a better job of helping me to make my point. Before I get to that, here's what the other e-mail (from someone who only identified him or herself as flamingkittens) said:

From: flamingkittens Sent: Friday, October 19, 2007 4:16 PM To: David Berlind Subject: Uneducated Moron = YOU

I just read your review of WHS, and I have to admit; You're a convincing idiot. If you'd even bothered to truly try the software rather than base your opinion on articles you've read about it, you would know that WHS is actually the best thing to come out of Microsoft since Windows XP Professional SP2.

nd a note on you attempting to set up a Linux server in your home: You'd have to be a one-eyed downs baby with no arms or legs to not know how to set one up.

Therefore my friend, you are a complete idiot who needs to think about going back to working at a fast-food chain before you start spewing proverbial crap out of your mouth. Just because you hold a BBA in CIS doesn't make you what you think you are. You don't know the first thing about good computing.

In summary: David Berlind = N00B

That's the entire e-mail, unedited. Flamingkittens is probably right. I am an idiot. But not for the reasons s/he says I am. Rather, I'm an idiot for unnecessarily making my original argument more complicated than it needed to be. In that argument, I stated that WHS bucks the trend that entire market is heading when it comes to solving the problems it solves and that it's complicated. Both s/he and Shawn hung the focus of their rebuttals on the latter point about complexity. They both point out that Windows Home Server is a great product and not so difficult to use.

I should have known better. In my original post, I pointed to things that Microsoft said about Windows Home Server that blink in neon the word "complicated." You can go back to that post and read them if you want. But to be honest, I regret pointing these complications out. They really don't matter. What matters is that Microsoft is attempting to start a market that doesn't exist. Let's be honest. Before Windows Home Server came along, there was nothing else like it on the market. There are other solutions that do some of what WHS does. But in totality, WHS stands alone. I argued in that original post that if the market for something like WHS really existed, then Apple would have done one already. There's a reason it hasn't.

If people need one of these (I'm not convinced they do), they probably don't know it. But don't take my word for it. Here's another prescient clip from the Ars review:

At first glance, Windows Home Server seems built to scratch an itch that doesn't exist.

This is almost exactly my point. "At first glance." Clearly, Ars is going down the path of "there's more to this than meets the eye" and there is. But the problem for Microsoft is that most market-starting products like WHS only get one glance. And it's during that one glance that Microsoft must somehow convince consumers to buy WHS.

Asking people to part with their money for another "thing" in their house that they'll have to pay some attention to (regardless of what it is or how much attention they must pay to it) is a very difficult sell. Particularly since there's some opportunity cost involved in buying one.

Ars Technica's very thorough review makes a great point:

Windows Home Server is available (a) as a complete hardware/software solution or (b) as OEM software for system builders. Joe and Jane Public will likely walk into their local big-box electronics retailer and buy prebuilt machines that will have Windows Home Server already installed and configured for use.

What's that system going to cost in Circuit City or Best Buy? When someone goes into that store with that kind of money to spend, are they going to go there knowing they want to buy a Windows Home Server? If yes, what will Microsoft have done to insert this thought into their heads? If not, where are these servers going to be in the store (relative to other items that could be purchased with the same money)?

Before parting with their money for yet another computer to put in their house (and connect to their network), the first question that Joe and Jane are going to have are What is it?; Why do I need one?; If I need this, are there alternatives?; and finally, what else could I spend this money on? WHS could be the easiest product in the world to use. But Microsoft is still asking people to part with their money for something that most people have never parted with their money for before. At least not in one purchase. OK, I'll submit that part of WHS' appeal is how, for those of us that have traditionally "acquired" WHS' functionality in parts, WHS kills those multiple birds with one stone. Again, Ars:

Over the years, we've cobbled together our own "home servers" using a variety of platforms and hacks to get the functionality we desired. Others have taken advantage of consumer-level storage devices such as Infrant's ReadyNAS or Data Robotics' Drobo to back up files and serve up media. These were haphazard at best, as it required piecing together both hardware and various software applications into a patchwork solution.

The problem for Microsoft is that the "we" that Ars is talking about isn't a big enough market to make WHS a success. That "we" is people like you, me, flamingkittens (who clearly is a techie judging by the Linux background s/he implies) and Shawn; a group of buyers who would just assume own a WHS because it exists. That "we" is not Joe and Jane Public.

Case in point? My neighbor Sue. Recently, I told Sue's story in this space. When Sue has problems with her PC (not unusual), she calls the neighborhood IT department (me). I like helping. There was a part of the Ars Technica review that took me right back to that story I told about Sue. According to Ars:

Managing users and permissions for Windows Home Server is done from the User Accounts screen. From here, you can view and manage all user accounts.

When adding a new account, Windows Home Server will prompt you to enter a user name and password and then select permissions for each of the available shared folders.

Now read the last two paragraphs in my story about Sue:

Before I left, I pointed out to Sue two other features of her investment. First, that she could fax directly from her PC without printing anything out (as opposed to printing out, and then faxing). Second, that she could give her daughters their own accounts on the system — accounts that would not only allow each of the girls to partition their instant messaging and Web preference from each other, but also accounts that couldn’t interfere with the system’s installation.

It was all news to her…..and a failure on behalf of the PC industry that’s impossible to quantify.

Here's my neighbor Sue (could just as easily have been Jane Public) who didn't have a clue that should set up separate user accounts for her family members. When I offered to do it for her, she said, "Nah, that sounds too complicated."

This is the home that Windows Home Server is targeted at. They've got multiple systems, multiple kids, lots of music, etc. I'm not saying that Windows Home Server is complicated. But if it's not, Microsoft must first educate Sue about its features (like establishing multiple users), convince her that she needs that in her life, help her over any perception that its complicated and get her to part with her money.

I just think this is a much harder sell than most people realize, especially for a company that doesn't have a lot of experience in starting new markets (markets existed for practically everything it sells before it started selling those things).

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

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75 comments
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  • I'm not exactly a card carrying MS fan club member

    But when I look at the plans behind WHS I have to admit that there are some pretty good ideas in there. The question is whether MS can produce a quality product, and whether MS can sufficiently market WHS to gain enough developer and consumer support to continue the product.

    MS is usually pretty good at the latter, and usually not so good at the former. But if they can stick it out until they get good at it, then this product could work. Especially if they support this product longer than they are used to supporting operating systems, or at least allow future upgrades to run on this generation's hardware, because it would be nice to be able to keep data on one appliance for a really long time and not have to transfer it to another every five years.
    Michael Kelly
  • At least wait until it is released

    Then give us a detailed review. If it flops, it flops. Nobody is being forced to buy it. It will fail or succeed on its own merits.

    This is unlike digital converter boxes which the govt is forcing us to subsidize:
    http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/frnotices/2006/couponprogram_nprm_07202006.htm
    otaddy
  • Anonymous email: Out of line

    Don't trouble yourself David. That email is 'symptomatic' and obviously from an individual with issues and a lot of misplaced hostility.

    I am inclined to agree with your viewpoint on WHS and given that Vista exists for the very same home market WHS will not likely given serious consideration--a very narrow market segment at best.

    Go kick up and relax and enjoy your weekend.
    D T Schmitz
  • Don't worry about it Dave :

    When I read the text you posted from flamingkittens , it reminded me of many here on
    ZDNET that post such things , These people will go to extremes to defend their master
    . Take it like a granual of salt and just chuck it over your shoulder .
    None_Zealot
  • Really, the first thing, is even technical people would just rather have

    another desktop that had that functionality. Why does in only have to be in a "server". Why don't all computers just have that functionality?
    DonnieBoy
    • That is a good question Donnie

      I've been a Macintosh user for years , and I can tell you frankly , that a server has
      been included with the Mac OS desktop . Just another way for Microsoft to bleed
      money off their customers .
      None_Zealot
      • RE:That is a good question Donnie -- UHS

        You can get Ubuntu Home Server and run it in a VM.

        "I have made a torrent version of the VMware application: TestUHS-II-01"

        It has been uploaded on these two torrent trackers:
        http://thepiratebay.org/tor/3784619
        http://linuxtracker.org/torrents-details.php?id=4513&hit=1

        I have made it using VMware Workstation 6.
        Please let me know if that causes any problems.

        To run the UHS-II you need to :
        A) Download VMware player - its free from http://www.vmware.com
        B) Download the UHS-II-01.zip file using a torrent downloader


        User name: vmware
        password: vmware


        http://forums.ubuntuhomeserver.org/viewtopic.php?t=251
        n0neXn0ne
        • Questions about Ubuntu Home Server

          I'm confused about Ubuntu Home Server. Someone seems to make a point of mentioning this distribution in every WHS story, and I feel as though I'm not getting the whole story, because the documentation and forum for this is almost non-existent.

          My questions: can someone explain to me how I would configure the server to push incremental clustered backups of all the PC's in my house? How do I instruct the server to bring clients out of standby for these backups? What method of transfer used. I've tried BackupPC with Samba, which failed due to a timeout bug in Samba, no to mention the other Samba limitations with regard to Windows locked files and ACLs?

          Also, when I have a complete hard drive crash on one of my Windows clients, how exactly do I restore it from scratch using Ubuntu Home Server?

          Thanks.
          awp0
          • RE:Questions about Ubuntu Home Server

            Did you [i]try[/i] posting your question here?:
            http://forums.ubuntuhomeserver.org/

            This is the wrong forum for a Q & A on UHS.
            n0neXn0ne
          • Heh

            Should I post my question in the "General Comments" section, which hasn't had any activity in 6 weeks? Frankly I was hopeful you'd enlighten us all, since UHS is apparently supposed to be a replacement for WHS.

            I've done some more reading and I'm quite convinced that despite the similar names, UHS doesn't accomplish many of the things that make WHS worth the money.

            I suppose we could start with restoring a Windows client....
            awp0
          • It is also the wrong forum ...

            ... for you to suggest it but that didn't stop you, did it? UHS is nothing like WHS. To suggest it as a substitute shows your ignorance of both.
            ShadeTree
          • You will have worse problems with WHS, and pay a fortune for the privilige.

            These kinds of issues are exactly why a home server will not fly. And, we really do not need a "server" at all, how about building it in to the client OS?
            DonnieBoy
          • you don't get it

            Theses kind of issues he is talking about are at 90% in the core feature of WHS ... and nowhere to be seen in UHS ... it was it's point.

            -how I would configure the server to push incremental clustered backups of all the PC's in my house.

            automatic at the installation of the connector (5 min per PC), no additionnal step.

            -How do I instruct the server to bring clients out of standby for these backups
            The computer is automatically wake up -again no additionnal stedp here- if on standby and with WOL plugin can be waken up if compatible (plugin installable from the console).

            -Also, when I have a complete hard drive crash on one of my Windows clients, how exactly do I restore it from scratch ?

            WHS is bundled with a repair CD, you enter it on your computer CD drive, and everything is 100% easy (not need to enter server IP or anything of this kind)

            please get you facts strait after testing the product.
            Atomsk
  • still u havent answered the questions

    I agree with you on the pricing of WHS, that it seems to be a high-end product that normal consumers might not like to efford for this product.

    Second, you havent said whether you have actually used WHS before writing the article (i hope you did). As most of this article points to the Ars Technica review, did you also notice that ARS gave a 9/10 for WHS??
    5ri
    • I didn't use it.

      I still think you're missing the point. I'm saying that regardless of how good it is, it's going to be a very hard sell to get Joe and Jane Doe to buy one. Putting another computer in the house is a hard enough sell. Putting another one in the house with the word "server" in its name is orders of more magnitude difficult than that, IMHO.
      dberlind
      • re: I didn't use it.

        David:

        I'm one of your Constant Readers, though I do tend pick and choose the articles you write that are of interest to me. And of those articles, the overwhelming majority are well thought-out and well-reasoned, mainly because you have taken the time to test the equipment or software you are writing about. In fact, your "Tech Shakedown" series has been very good.

        However...your statement that you have not used Windows Home Server comes as a bit of a shock, and what makes it wors is that you have apparently taken the Peter Gutmann road to criticize a product. (Gutmann fans, warm up your flamethrowers.) By this, I mean that you have taken a strongly negative position on an OS/application package with which you have no direct experience.

        Your original article mentioned PR releases received from Microsoft, extensively quoted a warning about the update for WHS from the WHS blog (interpreting it as meaning that "servers are complicated"), provided a link to "Sue's story" (about a non-techie neighbor) and a quote from same, all made in an apparent attempt to say that the potential market for WHS is all wrong and that since it's a server, it simply must be difficult to set up and maintain.

        In the original article, your focus was on one of WHS's side-benefits: Automatic nightly backups of all client machines on the network. Such backups are very useful (you even said so yourself), but in virtually the same breath you dismissed them as being not all that important at all.

        You said nothing about the main use of WHS (perhaps because you were unaware of it): A central repository of all of a family's media files and documents, in both public and private folders, which would free up resources on the client computers.

        In your second article, you provide an out-of-context quote from an ArsTechnica article (or review) of the WHS RC1 beta, which suggested that Ars had given thumbs down to WHS. In fact, according to another poster here, Ars thought it was actually a nifty idea. (Up front disclaimer: I have not read the Ars article.)

        A second quote from the Ars article (again, taken out of context in such a way so as to support your antipathy towards WHS) focuses on "Joe and Jane Public", the archetypical non-technical computer bozos that everyone here knows at least one of. Those people are [b]not[/b] the market that WHS would be pointed at, as you well know.

        That particular market would be a family which is relatively tech-savvy (some more than others), which has multiple Windows XP/Vista computers already networked to connect to the Internet and, perhaps, with limited file sharing permissions, with a large number of media files that are duplicated across most or all of the installed platforms. Even if that particular market is less than .1% of [b]all[/b] multi-computer households in the US, it would be a fairly large one. I happen to know of a family that fits that description (five computers + one NAS storage device/print server.) Having seen WHS in action, the head of that family (a fairly techie man) is [b]very[/b] interested in eventually setting up his own WHS on his own existing equipment, instead of purchasing a ready-made WHS box.

        My own experience with WHS has been quite pleasant. I do know a fair amount about computers, but I am [b]not[/b] an IT professional and do not work with servers of any kind. WHS was a snap to set up on an existing computer (2.4Ghz P4, 1Gb RAM, 450Gb total storage.) It was equally easy for me to install the Connector software on the client computers (C2D 2.4Ghz, 2Gb RAM, running Vista Business and an HP zv6000 series notebook, AMD Athlon 64 3800+, 1Gb RAM), establish connections (wireless for the notebook) to the created account(s) and folders on the WHS box, and transfer files to and from the machines. MP3 files stored on WHS streamed quite well over the 100Mb network, but I have not tried to stream video files that way.

        I consider the testing I've done to be a success, in a non-professional way. And this is [b]precisely[/b] what Microsoft has in mind--a server that a non-professional can set up, configure, and administer, with a minimal amount of technical skills.

        Prices? NewEgg is currently offering OEM Windows Home Server for US$189, to be installed on existing spare equipment. Tentative prices for ready-to-run, entry-level WHS boxes from HP, Gateway, and others appear to be in the US$400-500 range. Those servers would have at least a single 250Gb HDD, minimum of 512Mb RAM, and probably a 1.8-2.0Ghz P4 or Core Duo processor (or AMD equivalent.) More RAM, storage, or faster processor options would drive the prices up, of course. A spare monitor, keyboard, and mouse would be used for the initial setup and configuration, then removed after the server is ready to go.

        No, Joe and Jane Public wouldn't necessarily be interested in a home server, but there are many others who would be. When you have a chance to try out and review WHS for yourself, kindly do so and report back your experiences with it. I'll be more than willing to read the article.

        And be honest. Your last two articles have been much less than that, IMHO.
        M.R. Kennedy
        • Conceptual Review

          You forgot the toll-free number where operators are standing by for my call.

          Mr. Berlind was thinking about the concept and not reviewing the product. I agree
          with his opinions regarding the concept: it will be a tough sell to the mainstream
          household. Where I may disagree with what he originally wrote would be in the
          use of the wod "flop." I expect that this product is a component of a future all-in-
          one turnkey solution; in short, I suspect Microsoft isn't concerned about this
          product breaking out of a customer base of sophisticated Microsoft users.

          As to what I think, I'll admit that a product that has a reportedly good satisfaction
          reputation among the beta and early adopters has a better chance of breaking out
          that a dog product.

          Since my home systems are Linux and Mac, I suspect a lot of the neat-o features
          won't work (awake from sleep for backup, etc.) I hope it uses something more
          universal than ActiveDirectory to implement file sharing, otherwise it would be a
          big goose-egg for most of the homes I know.





          .
          DannyO_0x98
          • re: Conceptual Review

            DannyO:

            "You forgot the toll-free number where operators are standing by for my call."

            Perhaps you have less 'net connectivity than I had expected. NewEgg can be reached at:

            (800) 390-1119
            Monday through Friday, from 7:00am to 5:00pm PST.

            Presuming that you *do* have a decent 'net connection, here's a link to their OEM WHS offering:

            http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16832116395

            As of this writing, the asking price is US$180.

            I understand that David was talking about the WHS concept. But rather than installing and trying it out on one of his own machines, he shot his mouth off in a fashion similar to that of Peter Gutmann, to whom I referred. You remember him, don't you? The academic who made all sorts of dire pronouncements about Windows Vista, based on information gleaned from Microsoft sources and from third parties, though he himself had never himself used it. Those pronouncements included a prediction that Vista was going to be the longest death rattle in the computer industry's history, or something to that effect. It was in all the papers, you know.

            David's pronouncements of WHS potentially being Microsoft's next "flop" are similar, and apparently were arrived at as Gutmann's were--without having actually used the product himself. But hey, nobody should get upset about that, right? It's not as if anyone ever takes David seriously.

            "Since my home systems are Linux and Mac, I suspect a lot of the neat-o features
            won't work (awake from sleep for backup, etc.)"

            So far as I know and have read, no, Macs and Linux boxes are not supported by WHS at this time. There's a possibility that MS may correct that after WHS has launched and is available. Like as not, it will depend on the how many requests they get for OS X and Linux support for it.

            "I hope it uses something more
            universal than ActiveDirectory to implement file sharing, otherwise it would be a
            big goose-egg for most of the homes I know."

            I wouldn't know. I'm not an IT professional, nor do I work with servers. I do know that it works seamlessly with both Vista Business and XP Home via the provided Connector software which, BTW, is not required to be actively running in order to directly access the WHS Shared Folders. It *is* required for backups and for managing the server. According to MS, the Connector software will run on XP and Vista only, or so I've read. I have no direct experience with attempting to use it with earlier versions of Windows.
            M.R. Kennedy
          • Oh It's Got Connector Sotware, Let's Ring It Up

            Thank you for all the contact information. I guess "your net connectivity isn't
            good" is current parlance for "your mother wears combat boots." As I do not use
            Windows at home, as I mentioned, and have been using a FreeBSD machine for my
            home server needs [mostly cvs]) for years, you're preaching to the empty pew
            where once sat a guy hasn't been at church for quite a few years.

            Whether WHS suceeeds beyond my expectations, it won't be because I got one,
            and I understand the concept. I stand by my opinion that any product with the
            name "server" in it will not have any traction into home markets.

            We've all wasted too much time on this, well, except for those who have placed a
            thin veneer of the strawman "you haven't tried it yet" argument over the sales copy
            they really wished to write, and all this in response to comments about the
            marketing concept.

            It's like people who opine on desktop Linux as a concept: if they don't think it will
            work, it's no sweat to me, because I'm using it for a desktop, prefer it to Windows,
            and I understand that I'm not a typical computer user. I think flying cars would be
            terribly wasteful consumers of fuel and fender-benders would be far deadlier. Just
            an opinion on the concept. Haven't tried a flying car yet.
            DannyO_0x98
      • Putting another computer ...

        ... in the house that is headless is even harder. Selling it in retail is practically impossible. I have to go with you on this one Dave.
        ShadeTree