Microsoft's HomeStore: Home automation, with an iPhone-inspired twist

This month, in anticipation of the late October ACM Workshop on Hot Topics in Networking, Microsoft has posted its whitepaper on Microsoft Research's HomeOS and "HomeStore," an accompanying app store that researchers are patterning after the iPhone app store.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

In September, I posted some information on a Microsoft Research project known as HomeOS -- an operating system designed to make heterogeneous devices and systems work together more seamlessly.

This month, in anticipation of the late October ACM Workshop on Hot Topics in Networking, Microsoft has posted its whitepaper on HomeOS and the "HomeStore," an accompanying app store that researchers are patterning after the iPhone app store.

HomeOS, as it is described in the October paper, is a centralized home-automation operating system that can handle everything from TVs, to smartphones, to lights. The prototype operating system is built on the .Net Framework and all of the proposed drivers and apps are also .Net-based.

Here's an overview diagram from a Microsoft researcher's HomeOS slide deck:

The new HomeOS paper -- entitled "The Home Needs an Operating System (and an App Store)" -- does not provide details as to what the base-level operating system would be. Some Windows variant? Or maybe it will be based on (or at least interoperable with) the Microsoft Research Menlo mobile operating-system initiative? Or maybe its core will be theSingularity microkernel developed by Microsoft Research? (Singularity already has been contemplated inside Microsoft as a home operating system candidate, noted Charon at Ma-Config.com, who is the one who sent me the link to the newly published HomeOS whitepaper.)

The researchers on the HomeOS project have been doing field visits to homes with automation systems, and have come to some early conclusions. They believe HomeOS' access control needs to incorporate the notion of time, to allow users to restrict access to certain devices at certain times. A HomeOS needs to restrict application access to certain resources, independent of the user who activates the app. It also needs to provide an easy-to-understand security-settings view, the researchers said.

The HomeStore -- "inspired by the iPhone model," according to the white paper -- would be a vehicle for simplifying the distribution of apps and devices connected by the HomeOS. It would also make recommendations and offer quality checks and ratings to users. From the white paper:

"The HomeStore verifies compatibility between homes and applications. Based on users’ desired tasks, it recommends applications that work in their homes. If a home does not have devices required for those tasks, it recommends appropriate devices as well. For instance, if a user wants integrated temperature and window control, the HomeStore can recommend window controllers if there exists an application that combines those window controllers with the user’s existing thermostat. In addition, the HomeStore can performbasic quality checks and support rating and reviewing to help identify poorly engineered applications and devices."

Interestingly, Microsoft is not pushing for a single, Microsoft-controlled HomeStore.

"We do not intend for the HomeStore to become the sole gatekeeper for home applications. Towards this end, we allow for multiple HomeStores, and users can visit the one they trust most.," the researchers noted in the paper.

(That sounds somewhat like the Windows 8 app store model that Microsoft was considering, based on leaked slides. Different OEMs would each have its own app store, rather than there being a single, centrally-run Microsoft app store only.)

It's early days for HomeOS and HomeStore, the researchers noted. The team has set up a test bed with a variety of devices found in today's homes. So far, they've implemented drivers for the DLNA media standard, ZWave home-automation standard, a video camera and a Windows Mobile smartphone, the paper states.

The team also has written three sample applications that make use of multiple devices, including a "sticky media" app that plays music in parts of the house that are lit up, but not other rooms; a two-factor-authentication app that uses audio from smartphones and images from a front-door camera to turn on lights when a user is identified; and a home browser for viewing and controling a user's access to all devices in a home.

Microsoft execs, including Chairman Bill Gates back in the early part of this decade -- have been envisioning a world where .Net coffee pots, bulletin boards and refrigerator magnets would be part of homes where smart devices would communicate and interoperate. It looks like Microsoft hasn't given up on that dream....

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