January 8, 1999 -- Microsoft has launched Universal Plug and Play, an initiative designed to allow a broad range of devices such as PCs, printers, and even security cameras to connect as peers over a home network and share resources.
In many ways, this initiative is Microsoft's response to the Jini technology disclosed last year by Microsoft's archrival, Sun Microsystems, one analyst noted. Both technologies are designed to allow devices to connect easily to a network and interoperate with other devices.
"As appliances become more intelligent and the distinction between appliances and computing devices blurs, a key part of their value to consumers will come from their ability to communicate with other intelligent devices," said Crag Mundie, senior vice president of Microsoft's consumer strategy division.
To achieve that level of communication, Microsoft -- along with industry partners including Intel and Hewlett-Packard -- is developing a common set of interfaces that manufacturers will be able to use to build products that will be Universal-Plug-and-Play-compatible. The technology will be based on open standards, primarily TCP/IP and XML, Mundie said.
The initiative has parallels with the Plug-and-Play initiative announced by Microsoft and others back in 1992, which allows users to connect peripherals to a PC without having to reboot the system. With Universal Plug and Play, that idea is extended and applied to a home network: peripherals can be attached to a network, they "announce" their presence, and can interoperate with other devices already connected to the network, Mundie said.
In a demonstration here Thursday, a Microsoft engineer said he wanted to print a document from a PC to a printer close by on stage. The devices were not connected, but using Universal Plug and Play and infrared technology, the printer "announced its presence" on the network and allowed the engineer to use the printer for his document.
In another example, a security camera was attached to a mock home network on stage. The image from the camera appeared immediately on a home security software application running on a PC.
Mundie said Windows 2000 (formerly known as Windows NT 5.0) will be Universal-Plug-and-Play-compatible when it is released, and the company will offer a software upgrade for all Windows 98 users that makes that operating system compatible too, he said, although he didn't offer a time frame for the upgrade.
Because the technology is based on industry standards including IP and TCP/IP, it will work with almost any kind of a network, including wireless and wireline networks, Mundie said.
Microsoft spokesman Philip Holden said the company hopes manufacturers will have compatible products in the market by as early as the holiday shopping season at the end of 1999. However, one analyst cast doubt on that prediction.
"I don't think they really know when this stuff is going to happen. They just saw all the press Sun is getting with Jini and they said, 'Let's do something alternative,'" said Seamus McAteer, Web technology strategies analyst with Jupiter Communications.
"The goal is to have a complete set of specifications and sample source code available at this year's WinHec," Microsoft's Holden said. WinHec -- Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference -- is due to take place April 7 to 9 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
Holden stopped short of calling the technology Microsoft's answer to Jini, but acknowledged there are similarities between the two.
Universal Plug and Play is almost certain to butt heads with Sun's Jini. Sun is set to announce its Jini manufacturing partners at an event scheduled for January 25, and Sun also hopes to have products that support Jini in the market by the end of 1999.