Microsoft has been dabbling in home entertainment for a decade now, acquiring WebTV in 1997 and introducing the original Media Center PC in 2002. The first, a set-top box and service for the TV that the company later rebranded as MSNTV, flunked the consumer-satisfaction test; the second faltered out of the gate, as consumers have been slow to embrace the marriage of the TV and PC.

But the convergence we've been hearing about for so long is coming, and maybe the third time—with a nudge from Microsoft's new Vista operating system—will be the charm. Released in late January, the consumer version of Vista is entertainment-driven, promising to enhance the capabilities of the latest version of the Media Center PC, which stores digital photos, music, and both standard and high-definition television programming.

Windows Vista and Media Center PCs are just the beginning: Microsoft, in fact, envisions a plug-and-play world in which all types of consumer gadgets communicate with each other over the Web Services for Devices cross-platform standard. WSD is a commonly accepted language that compatible products use to communicate on a network, eliminating the need for error-prone programming and drivers. Microsoft hopes to extend WSD compatibility to printers, digital cameras, routers, and even cell phones.

homecoming parade

WSD is coming home, too —in a big way. In 2006, Westerville, Ohio-based Exceptional Innovation (EI) launched Life|ware, a WSD-based software package designed to extend the Media Center platform to home control. Life|ware adds control of lighting, security systems, and climate to the same interface homeowners use to manage their TV shows, music, and digital pictures. One remote allows users to control functions as varied as selecting music and setting a lighting scheme, for example.

Home control through a simplified interface isn't new to the custom electronics market. AMX and Crestron Electronics have been integrating the control of subsystems into no-brainer touchpanel interfaces for years. But building a database of proprietary control codes and having installers write lengthy programs is expensive. EI believes Life|ware offers a less time-consuming and more scalable solution to accomplish the same kind of digital home management. According to Mike Seamons, EI's vice president of marketing, traditional control systems can't be installed cost-effectively for a 3,000-square-foot home. Life|ware, on the other hand, “can create a package that's customized to the economics of any size of home,” he says.

EI describes Life|ware as “software bridges” between compatible partner products, enabling rapid, reliable, and robust two-way communications between devices. Such communications could power several subsystems to act as part of a macro command. In Leave mode, for instance, the security system arms, lights go off, thermostats set to a predetermined level, and music shuts off. Through WSD, Life|ware is compatible with products from lighting companies CentraLite Systems, Leviton Manufacturing Co., Smarthome, and Vantage Controls; audio companies Nuvo Technologies and Russound; and media center manufacturers Ace Computers/Ace Digital Home, Hewlett-Packard, Inteset, and Niveus Media.

User interfaces include remote controls and homeowners' TVs, which are connected to the network via Media Center PCs, Media Center Extenders, or Xbox game players. Additionally, Life|ware touchscreen controllers are available for areas where TV control isn't practical, such as a foyer. In the future, PDAs and Web tablets will double as Life|ware remote controls—using the same intuitive interface to manage music, videos, pictures, and home-control functions—from inside or outside the home.

life preserver?

As WSD capability is built into more subsystems—a crucial part of the equation —the benefits to homeowners and installers will increase, since the network automatically discovers each new device or system. The simplified configuration and programming toolset built into Life|ware should cut down on the time installers have to spend in the field and reduce errors. Because the system is Internet-based, installers can upload configurations to the client's network, which could save an expensive truck roll.

And because an Internet-based control world appears to be the way of the future, EI encourages dealers to add its Life|controller to the mix. Seamons describes the product as “an appliance that runs Windows XP Embedded,” noting that “its job, 100 percent, is to manage the house.” One selling point is that the Life|controller is not exposed to virus threats or hackers through Internet browsing and e-mail, as a standard PC would be. For backup, EI recommends support products such as the Life|storage server, a heavy-duty hard drive that provides redundant storage for music files, digital images, recorded TV shows, and videos. To enhance the entertainment experience, EI also offers Life|vision, a digital TV server that streams four video programs simultaneously, allowing family members to view different programs at the same time.

Seamons sees Life|ware as an extension of a structured wiring package. “It's difficult for consumers to emotionally connect with copper wire in the wall,” he reasons. “Adding things that connect to copper wire, such as a Media Center entertainment package in the living room, becomes an emotionally connected sale for the customer. They're not looking at wire anymore. They're looking at a whole new way to use the TV in the living room.”