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

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.

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).