HP unveils Windows Home Server systems

First Windows-powered home servers, priced at $US599 and $US749, due out late this month

HP began taking preorders Monday for its MediaSmart Server, the first system from a major manufacturer powered by Microsoft's Windows Home Server (WHS) software.

MediaSmart, which won't ship until later this month, is priced at $US599 with 500GB of storage, or $749 with a terabyte of disk space. Those prices were identical to the listings leaked by Amazon.com in late August.

Other servers running the new operating system will ship later this year and into early next, including units from Iomega and LaCie, Microsoft said as it announced the official launch of WHS today.

WHS, loosely based on Windows Server 2003, made its debut at last January's Consumer Electronics Show and entered public beta about a month later. It provides automatic backup, data restore, file and printer sharing, and remote Web-based access for up to 10 Windows XP or Vista PCs on an Ethernet or wireless network.

Microsoft has hammered hardest on the automatic backup feature.

"More and more of consumers' digital assets are in one basket," an analyst at JupiterResearch, Michael Gartenberg, said. "But that basket is very, very fragile. Something like this is almost a necessity for multiple-computer homes."

HP had delayed the expected mid-September rollout of MediaSmart Server after it decided that WHS needed more work, even though Microsoft had handed out release candidate editions back in June and certified the software as ready for duplication in July.

Among the setup steps requiring additional attention was router configuration for accessing a home server remotely. "That was one of the primary reasons for the delay," said Allen Buckner, HP's senior product manager for the new hardware. Microsoft beefed up the automatic router configuration tool, and WHS's help messages are much clearer than before if the tool is not able to set up the router, Buckner added.

The router setup was important to HP because it added its own software to WHS that lets users share photos and videos from MediaSmart. Dubbed Photo Webshare, the software allows the server owner to designate others who can upload content to the system. HP will also include software for consolidating iTunes libraries and playlists from PCs and Macs on the home network for playback on any of the computers.

While some analysts have wondered whether WHS and the home servers it has spawned are in search of a market, Buckner argued that millions of people are ready to move up to a server. "We're not targeting the mass market," he said. "We're after the households with multiple PCs and home networks already in place. In and of itself, that's a pretty big market." Buckner claimed that 24 million US households are equipped with home networks and more than one computer.

The biggest problem with WHS and MediaSmart-style servers isn't finding an audience, he added, but convincing users that they need one. "Most consumers don't realise they need it. But if it's explained to them, they can get excited about it," Gartenberg said. "If that's done right, I think there's a huge market for Microsoft and its partners."

Microsoft, which is selling WHS separately only in a system-builder edition, also talked up other partners' products, including servers from UK vendor, Tranquil and Velocity Micro, as well as future releases from Iomega, Fujitsu Siemens Computers and Medion next year.

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