David Zax

A View from David Zax

Microsoft's Smart House

Microsoft Research presents “HomeOS.”

  • May 1, 2012

You’ve got a lot of smart things in your home. There’s your smartphone, of course. There’s your Nest thermostat, maybe. There’s your laptop, your game console, your tablet. As all the components of your home become increasingly outfitted with technology and internet access, it behooves us to wonder–is there any reason why our home itself can’t be “smart”?

Microsoft recently published a white paper on something it’s calling “HomeOS.” (Hat tip to CNET’s Mary Jo Foley for spotting it.) “In this paper, we advocate for a PC-like abstraction for technology in the home–all devices in the home appear as peripherals connected to a single logical PC,” write the study authors. Imagine, then, a future where all your devices and appliances talked to each other, operated in concert, and generally made your life easier.

It’s actually a vision that Bill Gates has had for over a decade. This 2002 PC World article points to a Gatesian concept of “a home full of smart gadgets.” Most of the prototypes Gates touted back then actually seem almost comically irrelevant, given the smartphone in your pocket right now, including an alarm clock that “uses a wireless Internet connection to automatically update the time” and refrigerator magnets whose LCDs offer “real-time data feeds, such as time, weather, sport scores, road conditions, and other useful information.” I can tape my iPhone to my fridge and do a lot better than that.

HomeOS isn’t a secret. Miscrosoft’s research geeks periodically pipe up to report on the progress of their vision. Here’s a video from last year, in which one of the researchers says, “The underlying observation in our work is that a lot of us now have a dozen or so networked devices in home…so what that means is that we have all the basic ingredients for building smarter homes already.” He adds: “The way these devices work today, and the way they’re controlled, it requires a lot of effort on the part of a tech enthusiast to get them going together to manage their homes.”

But the idea behind HomeOS–were it to ever migrate from the research division to the actual products division within Microsoft–is to make the smart home a reality for the masses. The key here would be to create a HomeOS that is device agnostic, allowing easy integration of your Nest thermostat, your iPhone, your webOS-powered refrigerator, and so on. (Being generous with competitors doesn’t mean Redmond couldn’t make money off of the thing, naturally–another white paper points out that HomeOS would need an app store of its own.) Microsoft is reportedly testing out HomeOS in about a dozen homes already.

Of course, inevitably, where the technologists go, the science fiction writers have already been. Ray Bradbury once wrote a story about a smart home called “The Veldt” (it ends poorly for the family involved; you can listen to Stephen Colbert, of all people, read that story here). Disney adapted and sanitized “The Veldt,” making it into a cheesy TV movie called “Smart House” in 1999. Let’s hope HomeOS can throw a party as totally radical as the one shown here!

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