Yesterday, Mary-Jo Foley, in her column on ZDNet told us that Microsoft has a plan to bring a more consumer-friendly [I don’t know about you, but I read this as “slightly above moron”] operating system and ways of doing things for the many people not inclined to actually learn how to do things.

Now I am not denigrating ease of use, nor am I saying that every user of home electronics should have a degree in electronics or computer science. What I am saying is that if I have learned anything in my time on the planet, it is that you will never lose money overestimating the stupidity of some of the public, and that people will usually respond in the way they are expected to. If you want them to act like dummies, then treat them as though they are.

Conversely, if you want people to know more, and act in at least what we could call an adult fashion, then expect it from them.

For the ever increasing number of household gadgets that make our lives better, but sometimes confound, make it clear that some actual reading with comprehension will be involved, and if that is more than the user is able, or willing, to do, then they will have to make arrangements to have a “tech person” set things up for them.

I hate the idea of Microsoft wanting to dumb-down the operating system to the lowest common denominator, not only because that is very low, but because it wastes time better spent on doing things to make the average user’s life with tech a bit better.

It looks like the Softies may still have designs on an OS — and an app store — for the living room (beyond Windows Home Server).

Microsoft Research is working on a project known as “HomeOS,” which will provide a way to isolate non/less-technical users from the heterogeneous and often incompatible mess of devices they are attempting to network at home.

(Thanks to Charon of Ma-Config.com, who sent me a pointer on September 10 to the HomeOS project.)

From a description of an as-yet-unposted white paper, entitled, “The Home Needs an Operating System (and an App Store),” here is the researchers’ premise:

“We argue that heterogeneity is hindering technological innovation in the home—homes differ in terms their devices and how those devices are connected and used. To abstract these differences, we propose to develop a home-wide operating system. A HomeOS can simplify application development and let users easily add functionality by installing new devices or applications. The development of such an OS is an inherently inter-disciplinary exercise. Not only must the abstractions meet the usual goals of being efficient and easy to program against, but the underlying primitives must also match how users want to manage and secure their home. We describe the preliminary design of HomeOS and our experience with developing applications for it.”

Microsoft researchers from the company’s Networking and Systems and Networking teams are due to present their work in late October on HomeOS at the Association of Computing Machinery’s HotNets IX workshop in Monterey, Calif.

The problems I see here are these –

First, Microsoft taking care of heterogeneity could be a laudable effort, but we know it will not be without cost, as Microsoft goes about the business of creating and distributing these specifications to all who wish to participate. Those costs, both to retool early efforts and to pay tribute to Microsoft, will come down as consumer costs, and may make the average consumer run to the safety of a family friend that can be cajoled into helping set up the non-Microsoft-specified products, or bite one bullet, instead of many, and pay for a “tech guru” to do the set up of a house, never to be messed with again.

Second, the above description would seem to be an end run around the earlier presented, and universally distasteful, idea of Microsoft selling subscriptions to its OS and applications. By couching the same thing in a different way, Microsoft achieves its goals of further dominance over the desktop and home, and also eliminates almost completely the idea of software piracy, as its software will no doubt be calling home many times per day to see if Mama Redmond thinks things are okay at each one of her babies’ homes.

I can only imagine the level of chaos that will ensue the first time the validation servers are down…

As always, with Microsoft Research projects, there is no guaranteed commercialization guarantees or promised ship dates. HomeOS may fizzle or bits of it may be rolled into other products and services. But the existence of the project has me wondering a few things:

  • Didn’t Microsoft already try this, in a way, with PlaysforSure, which the company buried a couple of years ago?
  • How does Microsoft’s nearer term “personal cloud” synchronization strategy mesh (pun intended) with the HomeOS concept?
  • Why not just make Windows Home Server work with more devices and protocols? Why start over from scratch?
  • What the heck is a HomeOS app store? Will it supersede the Windows Phone 7 and forthcoming Windows 8 marketplaces? What kinds of apps will it feature?

Here are a couple of other interesting tidbits related to HomeOS that I unearthed:

There already was a HomeOS research project, dating back to 2004 or so, that was created by George Washington University researchers. While some of the concepts and goals may be similar, I doubt the two HomeOS projects are related, since the GWU one is based on a central server written in Java that interconnects applications and home management services.

In the summer of 2009, Microsoft researchers participated in a workshop in conjunction with the University of Washington where the top was “Unraveling the technological knot in homes.” The focus there was on simplifying the mix and management of interconnected devices, infrastructure and services. So the HomeOS project isn’t suddenly materializing out of nowhere. As Charon of Ma-Config noted, one of the HomeOS researchers also is involved in Microsoft’s Menlo mobile futures project. Perhaps there are synergies there, as well.

In any case, the white paper once it’s out should provide more clues and details as to what Microsoft’s thinking in this area….

Another thought is that perhaps Microsoft should have contemplated all of this before combining the 9x and NT branches of the operating system, as many of the things in the current OS will not be needed in the Home[r]OS.

If I could have the best of worlds, I would have a system that was open source controlling my house; this would be not only so as to not be a slave to Microsoft, or any other company of its ilk, but also so that I [or some family friend, if I could not write some code] could modify things more to my liking than is ever likely to be in a mass market product.

Especially one that is appealing to the Homers of the world.

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You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your tricks of war.

Napoleon

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