HomeOS: Microsoft Works on Bringing Smart Homes to the Masses

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Pop quiz: What’s the easiest way to wire up your entire home for smartphone and tablet controls? Unless you’re quite tech-savvy, chances are you haven’t the slightest idea.

It’s a problem that Microsoft Research wants to solve with HomeOS, an experimental operating system for home automation. The group has tested its system in a dozen homes over the last couple months, with a prototype that can control lights, fans, TVs, cameras and other switches.

HomeOS aims to be a “PC-like abstraction,” where connecting a new light or ceiling fan to the system is as simple as plugging a new mouse into your computer. Users would have an app store for device controls and for finding new devices compatible with their set-ups.

Microsoft Research isn’t the first group to focus on a centralized system for home controls. Standards groups such as Z-Wave and Zigbee Alliance already offer common systems for controlling lights, thermostats, security alarms and other devices. But as Microsoft argues, these systems still don’t allow enough communication between devices, so for instance, you might have a conflict where an energy management system wants to open your windows, while a security system wants to close them. The alternative is to buy a line of products from one company that are designed to work together, but then you’re locked into that company’s devices.

Microsoft’s prototype looks promising, as do its experimental home control apps. In one app, the user creates a set of rules on a Windows Phone, so when she walks into a room, a lamp turns on, and when she turns down the thermostat, the room fan turns off. In another example, the user gets an e-mail notification when his doorbell rings, along with a video feed of the front door.

HomeOS is just an experiment for now, and even if it becomes an actual product, there’s no guarantee that it’ll take off. Google announced its own smart home ambitions nearly a year ago with Android@Home, but so far it hasn’t gone anywhere. (In searching for news about the initiative, all I can find are blog posts covering the announcement last May.)

In any case, our unconnected light switches and thermostats seem dumber by the minute as the rest of our computing devices get smarter. More interest from a tech giant is, at the very least, a sign of better things to come.

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