Functionality Wishlist for Windows Home Server

In my last post, I talked about how third parties are likely to be the ones to make or break Windows Home Server in the marketplace.  Here’s a few ideas that I’m hoping someone will bring to the table when WHS is released:

  • Family Sharing – Basically, I’d like to select certain folders on the server, and designate them to be replicated to my extended family.  Hopefully they’ll all have Home Server machines as well, and now if I drop some home movies or photos into that bucket, they’d be automatically synced.  Likewise they could add stuff as well.  This can be set up today with Foldershare, but it needs to be simple and available through the WHS console.
  • Security Monitoring and Automation – This is one that I think will probably get addressed at least a couple different ways.  If I’m away from the house, I’d love to be able to remotely access my security system.  Maybe flip a couple lights on/off. Remotely access security cameras.  Turn the thermostat back up so the house isn’t too cold when I return.
  • Offsite backup – I’d like to see this addressed two different ways.  One would be a web-based service where I could pay for a certain amount of space on a monthly basis.  Another way that I think would be awesome is if I could designate a remote WHS machine (maybe at my brother’s house) as my remote backup point.  I could just buy a 500GB USB hard drive, he could plug it in to his machine and designate it for remote backups, or perhaps he could just have an easy way to set a quota for my remote backups, and it would make use of the storage pool that WHS manages.
  • Amazon UnBox or similar clients – Let me browse and buy from the server, either from the remote web interface or the console, and then let me watch the content on any media extenders in my home.  I could schedule the download remotely early in the day, and then it would be ready to watch on whatever TV was free in the evening (assuming it had a media extender attached.)
  • Family Schedule – This is getting into the email/pim realm a bit, and I know that story isn’t fully addressed, but a centralized shared calendar view would be cool.  Let me sync any type of calendar to the Home Server, Live Hotmail, Google Calendar, Outlook, whatever.  Somehow make the calendar viewable on media extenders, or on home PCs in an easy, quick way.

What other unfullfilled needs are out there waiting to be addressed?

Windows Home Server Marketing Challenge

I’ve been thinking a lot about how big of a splash Windows Home Server is going to make whenever it makes it to market.  One interesting challenge that the WHS team faces is that its core function, if it’s done properly, is effectively invisible.  It’s true that it is very visible when you need it, but these times are few and far between.

Now WHS has other goals and other features.  The “Access all your files from anywhere” model is pretty cool.  Right now I’ve got it set up using DynDNS (pretty easy but not very consumer friendly), but it looks like by release time there’s going to be some sort of integration with Live Domains, so that this will be a simple set up.  Even this functionality can fade into the background though.  Honestly, since I set this up, I used it a couple of times, just to play around with it, but I haven’t actually needed that remote access.

Now there’s a ton of 3rd party concepts that I’m psyched about.  Home automation integration could be pretty cool, but probably limited to a small niche for DIY types.  If they can partner with ADT or something and get WHS slated as an option when a security system is installed, that would be sweet.

Hopefully the 3rd party market really heats up this space.  It looks like the SDK is going to finally see light in early April.  It’ll be great to finally see exactly how open the platform is to extension.

In the end, I think that WHS is going to be successful not so much as a product, but rather as a platform.  As a product it’s going to be adopted by enthusiasts, people with home-based businesses, and people who have been bitten by the lack of an executed backup strategy.  But as these folks bring WHS into their homes, and the third party solutions start to take off, I can see lots of compelling software products coming on-line so that the masses will want their own Windows Home Server.

Twitter – Universal Content Origination System

Chris Webb writes that he thinks Twitter is going to earn a place as a universal content delivery system.  My thoughts on this are a little different.  Reading his post it seems like he thinks it may become the default info aggregator for a bunch of folks.  It may in fact do that, but I think the more interesting thing is that it can be a unified point for individuals to generate and publish info.  Now I haven’t played with Twitter yet, but from what I’ve read, I could see it evolving into a mechanism for people to put as much of their lives online as possible.  The text-twittering that seems to be the bulk of the traffic now is really only for hard-core communicators who’s thumbs are glued to their BlackBerry or Smartphone (If you’re at your computer, what are you going to Twitter, “I’m sitting at my computer twittering”?)

Anyways, with the API, I could see lots of interesting things happening.  Verizon could offer to automatically twitter my location from the aGPS on my phone (hopefully with a convenient on/off feature).  I could have Flickr auto-twitter my photos.  After Microsoft hashes out their Tellme acquisition they could offer to autotwitter from a microphone (or my phone again) so that my voice comes through as text (and audio?).

Now this is an emergent area, and what it grows into is going to be very uncertain and organic for many years.  I’m hoping that some competing services pop up, and I’m also hoping that they choose to interoperate with Twitter.  All us old guys who remember the Mosaic browser (or gopher clients!) thought email was “the” new way to communicate.  IM was next, and I think Blogs and social networking sites like MySpace are just a pitstop on the way to whatever it is Twitter is going to grow into.  Like email though, their success is going to hinge on playing nice with others.

Windows Live MSN .Net Messenger Identiy Crisis

I was just having some trouble signing in to Live Messenger and decided to use that little “Server Status” link.  I was a little surprised to be hit with 3 different brandings for the same service in the span of a few seconds.


I know there has been some brand confusion in the land of MSN, but I’d hope that they could at least pick one and try to make things consistant.

Windows Vista dumped my profile, Windows Home Server brought it back

When I turned on my laptop this morning, Vista had evidently misplaced my profile.  My wallpaper was gone, messenger didn’t start, and my desktop was empty except for the default icons. 

Normally I would start digging, checking the event logs, looking in my profile directory on the hard drive, googling for similar experiences, etc., but not today.  Today I decided that this would be a great opportunity to test out Windows Home Server’s restore functionality.
I did a quick mental inventory.  Had I changed any important files since the backup from 3 nights prior?  Nope.  Did I have a reasonable “extra backup” if Home Server managed to fail on the restore and trash my disk?  Yup.  Ok, here goes…

I threw in the restore disk, rebooted, and waited.  And waited.  Really it wasn’t that long, but I’d think that distributing the restore disk on DVD might make this a little snappier.  Maybe include the restore function as an option on the Server install DVD, and include the CD in the pack for older machines without a DVD-ROM.

After the restore wizard started, it failed to find my Server.  I was pretty sure this would happen since I was living on the edge.  I was hoping to perform the restore over my WiFi connection, and nothing had prompted me to enter my WEP key yet, so I knew it wasn’t going to work.  I tried going down the path to manually find my server, but no-where is there an option to enter WiFi info, so I ended up going down to the basement to rummage for an ethernet cable.  I set up the laptop and plugged it to my router. (Suggestion for the WHS Team: If you’re going to require a wired connection for restore, then this should be explained in the Wizard.  Some people expect their WiFi to “Just work”.)

After this the wizard easily found the server and prompted me for my server password.  Next I was presented with the option to select which computer I was restoring, and then I could choose which backup to restore.  The times seemed a bit out of whack, so there’s probably a mix up in the time zone on my server.

Next I was presented with a screen showing me options for the different volumes in the backup.  My first thought was that this is a stark contrast from the simplicity of the rest of the user interface.  IMHO the following screen should’ve been hidden behind an “Advanced” button:


One last chance to back out:

Then off it went.  The initial “Time Remaining” estimate was 5 minutes, and then over the next 15 minutes it slowly climbed to 46 minutes.  I had to leave at this point, so I’m not sure exacltly how long it took, but then I got home later in the day, it had finished.

  ->  ->

After I rebooted the machine, it went through about a half-hour of scrolling text on the screen about recovering orphaned files. 

This made me wonder whether the restore had actually been successful or not.  Usually a half hour of file-recovery related text scrolling on a Windows boot-up means your hard drive is toast.  Thankfully the machine booted right up after it finished.

I haven’t dug deep to make sure that the restore really did get everything, but so far nothing is missing, everything is working just like it was 3 days prior. 

Some minor wierdness that I experienced:  After rebooting, I received a warning about the previous shutdown being unexpected.  Now logically this makes sense:  If you restore a computer to a point-in-time where it was running, it’s going to think that it was shut down unexpectedly.  This might be a point of confusion for users who are less tech savy.  Second, my display settings had reverted to 1024 x 768 instead of their normal 1280 x 768.  I’m guessing this has something to do with Windows trying to recover from the “Unexpected Shutdown”, but I’m not sure.

All together it was a success, although I’m left wondering what Vista had done with my profile in the first place.  Seems kinda odd that I just used some beta software to recover from an error in the production Vista.  If it happens again I’ll dig a little deeper, but for this round it was fun to put Windows Home Server through it’s paces.

Wild Speculation – Longhorn Home Server?

Updated: Charlie Kindel has debunked my theory and stated that WHS V1 will not be based on Longhorn Server.

Since I like making the WHS team squirm, I’m going to make a prediction.  The fun thing about predictions is that when you get them right, you can call attention to them and point out your brilliance.  When you get them wrong, you can just let the quietly fade into history.

I predict that Windows Home Server will be based on Longhorn Server when it’s released.

My reasons are few and far between, but here’s my basis for this speculation:

  1. The release timeframe for both WHS and Longhorn Server appears to be “Second Half 2007”.  Releasing a product based on Server 2003 in the shadow of the Longhorn Server release might take away from the excitement around WHS.
  2. In the Channel9 video on WHS, Rory asked Charlie whether they had forked from Server 2003.  Charlie indicated that they hadn’t forked, and I think he said something about how the way that Windows Server is built allowed them to not fork.  The fact that this appears to be a modular addition to Windows Server should mean that it should play nice with Longhorn Server.
  3. There have been subtle hints about the possibility of clustering WHS boxes.  Changes in Longhorn Server enhance the clustering capability.   Reading through the Longhorn Server Highlights I kept thinking “That feature would be useful to WHS”.

That’s pretty much it.  Anything past that can just be chalked up to wild speculation on my part.