Microsoft is going to make the Windows 10 PC a more family-focused device, taking on Amazon’s Echo and Google Home as it does, according to the latest reports and rumors about forthcoming features.
The story starts with Twitter user Walking Cat poking around preview builds and finding reference to a feature named Home Hub, which appears to take the multi-user features of Windows 10 in a new direction. In addition to individual per-user accounts on shared machines, Home Hub will enable a shared Family Account and Family Desktop. This account will have its own calendar, music, pictures, and other resources that are used by and shared between several different people.
Mary Jo Foley tied that discovery to job postings from November, where Microsoft outlined its desire to build family-oriented sharing features for Windows and its desire to compete with Google, Amazon, Apple, and AT&T
Sources speaking to Windows Central added a ton of extra meat to the Home Hub skeleton. While a little groundwork has been laid already (such as the ability to use Cortana from the lock screen, which was added in this summer’s Anniversary Update), the major Home Hub features will be shipping in updates codenamed Redstone 3 (late 2017) and Redstone 4 (2018).
According to Windows Central, the family account will act as a kind of hybrid. It will show any user the shared, family-wide stuff but authenticate in using Windows Hello biometrics (which, for facial recognition, requires nothing more than sitting down in front of the PC). The shared data will be extended to also show private calendars and data. Sign off and the private stuff will be hidden away, leaving only the shared data. This ability to create family-enabled apps with the split level of privacy and authentication will be offered to developers, too.
A new family welcome screen, showing appointments, sticky notes, to-do lists, and similar shared information will be included, so even a locked machine will become more useful.
A key family-enabled app will be Cortana. Microsoft’s digital personal assistant will have a family mode, currently referred to as “FamTana” internally, that will be able to serve non-personal requests such as weather lookups and news headlines. It will also be able to access shared calendars, play shared music, and so on. As with other family-enabled apps, authenticated users will also be able to use their private data with her.
With the Home Hub features, Windows 10 will also become a smart device hub. It’ll be possible to register smart devices like lights and locks with the PC and control them centrally, including Cortana integration. Open Connectivity Foundation and Open Translators to Things devices will be supported out of the box.
The big point of differentiation between Microsoft’s plans and the capabilities of, say, Alexa on the Amazon Echo is that Microsoft is still envisaging a conventional PC (albeit a conventional PC with biometric authentication and microphone arrays) as the hub for all your activity. What doesn’t appear to be in the works is a headless, screenless, pure-voice device. This has some implications. It makes using Home Hub more expensive, especially if you want to cover more rooms—adding a new all-in-one PC is going to cost more than adding a new Amazon Echo, because the PC has a lot more hardware.
It also feels like it could fall foul of the same awkwardness that Cortana suffers from in Windows 10. Speaking to Alexa is natural, because there’s no other way of using Alexa; she’s trapped inside a box with only a microphone and a speaker to communicate with. But Cortana has a PC with a screen and a mouse and a keyboard, so there’s always this pressure to just… not use her and stick with the conventional input and output schemes. Alexa has to be designed so that she understands natural speech patterns and provides all the information you need using the spoken word; Cortana doesn’t have that same design discipline. After all, she can always fall back to making you look at stuff on the screen.