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Neptune: Home hub of the future?

With its forthcoming NT-kernel-based consumer Windows release, Microsoft is aiming to enable a whole new class of PCs and devices to function as the central source of entertainment and information in consumers' living rooms.

Currently, Microsoft touts its Windows CE operating system as the solution for appliance devices. But internal Microsoft documents viewed by Sm@rt Reseller and PC Week indicate that the company is also working on an adaptation kit for its consumer Windows version -- code-named Neptune -- that would allow third parties to develop their own "non-desktop PCs."

Typical of these non-standard form factors are a "Game PC" and "Media PC," both of which Microsoft is developing as part of a program called "Living Room Ready." Microsoft also is looking to develop "Living Room Ready" applications, such as a videophone and electronic programming guide, according to company documents. Living Room Ready apps will be designed so as to be viewable on large-screen devices at a distance of 10 feet away, according to Microsoft design goals.

Neptune is the first consumer version of Windows that will be based on the NT kernel. It will be preceded by Millennium, the last consumer version of Windows that will be based on the current Windows 9X kernel. Microsoft is aiming to ship Millennium next year and Neptune in 2001.

With Neptune, Microsoft is aiming to make Windows-based systems the hub of consumers' home entertainment experience. Neptune will include built-in support for end-to-end audio and video production and playback. The operating system will feature video play, record and edit capabilities; camcorder capture and edit functionality; and record/browse/playback support for digital and analogue TV, according to documentation. DVD RAM storage will be a component of Neptune, insuring high sustained data rates.

In a Neptune-centric world, users will be able to acquire video from a TV or a camcorder, annotate or edit it and turn around and share it with others, via the Web or other methods. Users will be able to play back the video or picture slideshows through their TVs or music through their stereos.

Neptune won't be just an entertainment platform, however. Microsoft is pushing to make the operating system also able to function as a home networking/home security hub. Universal Plug and Play support will enable these scenarios. Users will be able to use home networking for traditional purposes, such as sharing files between PCs or connecting a PC to a printer. They will also be able to use home automation services or play networked games and stream audio and video using the Neptune enabled home network.

Microsoft is also souping-up Neptune's online capabilities by building the ability to "roam" Win32 applications into the operating system. Photos, calendars and schedules are also on Microsoft's list of shared applications and services.

The Web is central to Neptune's new capabilities. Users will be able to create and host their own web sites using software and services provided from Microsoft. Personal communities may be created the same way. While it will partner with third parties, Microsoft will also leverage its own holdings, such as the Microsoft Network, to provide services for home users. MSN will provide the backbone for hosting Web sites or sharing the video and other multimedia created by users. In addition, it will offer online shopping, data storage and software downloads for consumers.

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