Engineering Windows 7

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At Home with HomeGroup in Windows 7

At Home with HomeGroup in Windows 7

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Like many places we’ve spent the past few weeks under quite a bit of snow, which is pretty unusual for Seattle!  Most of us on the team took advantage of the snow time to install test builds of Windows 7 on our home machines as we finalize the beta for early 2009—I know I felt like I installed it on 7000 different machines.  We’re definitely looking forward to seeing folks kick the tires on the beta when it is available. For more information on the beta, please stay tuned to http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windows-7 which is where we will post information about participation.

This post is about a Windows 7 feature that covers a lot of territory—it is about networking, user interface, sharing, media, printing, storage, search, and more.  HomeGroup is a way of bringing all these features together in a way that makes it possible for a new level of coolness in a home with multiple PCs running Windows 7.  A lot of us are the sysadmins for our own homes and for many others (friends and family).  We set up network topologies, configure machines, and set things up so they work—HomeGroup is designed to make that easier so it can be done without a volunteer sysadmin.  It makes for some challenges in how to describe the feature since the lack of such a feature has each of us creating our own private best practices or our own techniques for creating and maintaining a home network.  HomeGroup is about making this easier (or possible for everyone else) and at the same time giving you the tools to customize and manage—and no matter what, under the hood the file and printer sharing, media sharing, and networking you are already familiar with is there should you wish to stick with the familiar ways. HomeGroup is a deep feature that builds on a lot of new infrastructure/plumbing new to Windows 7, though in this post we’ll talk about it from the experience of setting up a network. 

This is a feature that is one you should just use and see it working, rather than trying to read about it as it covers so much territory in writing. 

This post is by Jerry Koh a lead program manager in the Core User Experience team, with help from a number of folks across the dev team.  --Steven

PS: From all of us on the Windows team, we wish you a very Happy New Year!

You probably have seen or heard about HomeGroup by now. We demonstrated it at PDC this year during Steven’s keynote, it was mentioned a few times at WinHec, and some of you may have even tried it on your PCs with the PDC pre-beta build of Windows 7. HomeGroup represents a new end-to-end approach to sharing in the home, an area in which Windows has provided many features before --- the intuitive end to end is what’s new. HomeGroup recognizes and groups your Windows 7 PCs in a “simple to set up” secure group that enables open access to media and digital memories in your home. With HomeGroup, you can share files in the home, stream music to your XBOX 360 or other devices, and print to the home printer without worrying about technical setup or even understanding how it all works.

This blog post is designed to give you a behind-the-scenes look at how we designed HomeGroup.

Designed with you in mind

The HomeGroup design goal, like other Windows 7 features, is informed by customer data and input. Whether from the Customer Experience Improvement Program (CEIP), the Windows Feedback Panel, focus groups or usability sessions, the data we collect enables us to focus on key areas where people feel the most pain. To begin figuring out how to solve file and printer sharing problems in the home, we started by looking at how people interact within a home environment. We wanted to learn not only how people used computers in the home, but also what social and behavioral norms were acceptable to see if there were parallels that we could bring into our design. We found the following:

  • People don’t allow strangers into their homes and usually lock their exterior doors. People within the confines of the home are typically considered to be trusted.
  • Within the home, doors to rooms are usually not locked, allowing members of the household to have free access. Books, photographs, magazines, CDs, and DVDs are often freely shared.
  • Social norms prevent most people from snooping into areas where they shouldn’t and, if needed, adding locks to rooms or drawers is relatively easy.

The social model of the home also reflected how people want to share. When we discussed file and printer sharing in the home (or the concept of doing so), we found that people classify their content generally into four different buckets: private, public, parentally sensitive, and children’s stuff. Private content consists of business and financial data and is considered private mainly because people fear it will be accidentally deleted as the number of people who have access to it increases.

People are typically quick to point out that they don’t have entertainment content they consider private, and they’re very open to free access to this content within the family. Families with children are often concerned about parentally sensitive content (inappropriate music, videos, etc.).  With digital cameras and camcorders dropping in price and being widely adopted, parents are primarily concerned about accidental deletion or loss of original copies of digital memories.

These observations were very interesting to us; a model that mirrored real-world expectations for sharing could be more natural to people than something that layered different questions around security, permissions or rights. So we approached the HomeGroup sharing model with the concept of open access in the home. But, how can we define what the “home” really is? What assumptions can we make about security?

Wireless, user passwords and when are you “at home”?

One of the key advances we’ve had in home networking technology has been wireless. Standards like 802.11 have taken the home network by storm. Wireless router sales to consumers are higher than ever, and are projected to continue growing. As a wider segment of people buy wireless routers, concerns about security start to build up. When configured incorrectly, wireless networks can leave your entire home network vulnerable to malicious people or nosy neighbors. While there have been efforts to help people become more aware of securing wireless networks -- such as the “Windows Rally program” and various “Windows Connect Now” technologies--the general public still lags behind in setting up security for their wireless networks. We know from our customer data that more than half of all wireless networks, whether by choice or oversight are set up as unsecured and we know many of you are the first line of defense in helping your friends and families set up a secure home network. While trends all point to more awareness and improvement in the future, it isn’t clear whether we would ever reach 100% security on these networks. So how can we make sure home networks are secured?

Another interesting factor is the usage of passwords on user accounts in the home. While people are more sensitive to security than ever before, we also observed that many don’t want to set up passwords for their Windows user accounts. They feel that it is a barrier to their use of the computer and yet another thing for them to remember or lose (as an aside, passwords are often viewed as a performance bottleneck in the home). From the data we obtained from the Windows Feedback Panel, a majority of users actually don’t use passwords in the home, opting for the simple model of opening the laptop lid and using Windows quickly. This parallels usage patterns on cell phones, where setting passwords on them would just be a deal-breaker for most people.

A majority of the computers in our panel only had one primary user. While we all know that laptop sales have overtaken desktop sales in the last couple of years, this data tells us that people are buying PCs more for specific people rather than for a shared location. With laptops, the mobility factor has contributed to the “one person/one computer” landscape, again mirroring cell phone ownership patterns in which users almost never share a personal cell phone.  Clearly as notebook options include even less expensive options, this will only increase, though we recognize it is still rather a luxury in most of the world.

Percent of PCs with given number of accounts.

So we wanted to find a model that could secure home sharing for people who don’t use passwords and could also take into account the more personal nature of PC usage.

First we needed to figure out that people were “at home”. Luckily we didn’t need to look very far for some useful technology in this area. Windows Vista introduced a concept known as network location awareness (NLA). This enables the system to recognize when you’ve changed network locations, and it tags the location with a simple “Home”, “Work” or “Public” designation. While it was somewhat of a mystery in Vista in terms of what such a designation did (unless you read all the words), we will see the infrastructure has become increasingly important as we built out the HomeGroup scenario.  In addition to ensuring the right firewall settings are configured for these locations, NLA also enabled us to be smarter about starting Windows services that are targeted at specific network locations. For example, the network discovery service does not start if you’re in a public location. However, Windows Vista didn’t have much distinction between the “work” and “home” network locations; they were essentially the same in terms of which firewall ports were opened and which Windows services were started.

In Windows 7, we extended the concept of NLA and made “work” and “home” more distinct. In Windows 7, when you select the “home” network profile, we know that you are “at home”, and will start the essential services required for successful file and printer sharing in the home. This provides an intuitive entry point into HomeGroup, and once you are “at home” we start looking for (via network discovery) other Win7 PCs in the home. If you already have a HomeGroup active, we offer you the ability to join it; if not, you can create one.

Set Up Windows Network Location dialog

Now that we know your PC is at home, we need to make sure that your data is secured from prying eyes. While wireless security is full of acronyms and technical solutions to security (WEP, WPA, TKIP, etc., to name a few), the fundamental model of wireless security is fairly simple for people to understand. The use of a physical key (copied several times) to enter one’s home is mirrored by the concept of typing in a shared key to gain access to the home wireless network. In the HomeGroup case, Windows will provide you with a pre-generated password out of the box, which you would hand over to any member of the home, and they could then join the group.

Homegroup password reminder.

While a password is provided by default, people can, at any time, visit HomeGroup in Control Panel to change their password to something they prefer. This flexible system performed very well in testing. When faced with the default password, people wrote it down, and shared it with others to set up the HomeGroup. You may ask, why don’t we enable people to set their own passwords by default? The answer is actually quite ironic, since that was our initial design. In testing, this concept raised quite a bit of alarm with people. It seems that most people generally have 1 or 2 passwords that they use for all their online or offline activities. When asked to input a user password for their HomeGroup, they gravitated towards using one of those, and then reacted with alarm when they realized that this password needs to be shared with other users in the home! People generally reacted better to the auto-generated password, since they knew to write it down and hand it around. The other interesting benefit we got from this was a reduction in the amount of time people would spend on the UI that introduced them to the HomeGroup concept. With a user-generated password, they had to grasp the HomeGroup concept, think about what password to set, and decide whether to accept the shared libraries default. Without having to provide a password, people had more time to understand HomeGroup, and their sharing decision – leading to a much more streamlined, private, and secure design.

A home of equals with open access to libraries

In addition to balancing security with ease of use, we also wanted to account for PCs becoming more personal. For this reason, we adopted the concept that each person in the HomeGroup is a peer of the others. Each person can thus join and leave the HomeGroup as they wish. Each person brings with them their choice of media/memories or files to share with the rest of the home. With a system based on equals and peers, the big benefit is a lack of management overhead; you don’t need one person to bear the management task of maintaining the group and dealing with membership tasks. This eliminates a primary source of complexity. All you need to gain entry is the shared password (just like the house key that each family member has).

With a home full of equals, what would they share? As mentioned above, our customers indicated a desire to share media, both music and photos, they want to quickly and easily access within the home. So that is exactly what we implemented. HomeGroup will enable sharing the pictures, music, and video libraries from your Windows 7 PC by default. Another blog post will go into more detail on how libraries work, but in a nutshell, they provide Windows with a way to aggregate multiple physical locations on a computer into one unified view. This is a very powerful addition to the way you organize your data in Windows. Your Pictures library can now contain your <username>\pictures folder, the Public\pictures folder, as well as the f:\foo folder that contains other pictures (and perhaps is on a USB external hard drive). Viewing your picture library locally gives you a unified view of all the pictures in these locations and enables you to search, sort, and organize them in the same way you would within a folder, while also making sure you save new items to the right place physically.

In addition to media, some people might want to share their documents. We enable you to do this when you create or join a HomeGroup. This is great for people who want to collaborate with their family or in families where open access to documents is not a concern. The content is shared as “read-only” and can be selectively changed in Windows Explorer. We want the system to work the way you expect it to, with enough flexibility to do whatever you want later.

Setting up Homegroup options.

Easy to use

Now that we have made it easy to set up, the next step is to make it easy to use. There were two aspects here that we want to emphasize for this post:

  1. Discovery of what is shared to me
  2. Access and usage of content that is shared to me

In Windows Vista, this discovery was done through the network folder, which provides a complete, but highly technical, view of the resources available to you on the network. In addition, the network folder also contains other devices and additional media libraries that were shared on the network. This was confusing and difficult to understand for typical people. For example, if you shared your Pictures folder, it was actually found under the computer in \\<computername>\users\<username>\pictures. Typically, people would not know to look into that path for the correct folder.

The concept of “libraries” introduced in Windows 7 gives us the design point to improve access their content across the network. While libraries aggregated the view on a local computer, if these locations were shared out to the network, they resulted in a more complicated view in the network folder for our users. Each location would be shared as a separate path, so taking the example above, sharing out the Pictures library means that you’ll see three shares under \\computername, Users\<username>\pictures, Users\public\pictures and foo. People would not benefit from the power of libraries on a network. Therefore, we use the concept of libraries to work well even across a home network. We did this in two ways.

First, people should have the same experience viewing a library whether on a local computer or across the network in a HomeGroup. We made sure that when you share the Pictures library in Windows 7, not only are all locations of the library shared, but the library resource is also shared and can be consumed by other computers in the HomeGroup. Effectively, members in a HomeGroup would see just one unified library with its aggregated views.

Second, we found that accessing these resources in the network folder was too many clicks away and sufficiently buried such that people would find it impossible to discover. So we created a new HomeGroup node on the navigation pane in Windows Explorer. When you join a HomeGroup, other HomeGroup Win7 PCs will appear under the HomeGroup node in the Windows Explorer navigation pane. They’re one click away and always at your fingertips. In our tests, this really opened up discovery and usage of content throughout the HomeGroup. People easily discovered music on another computer, played it back, or looked at photos. Consumption of media thus becomes something easy and habit-forming in the home, all by joining a HomeGroup.

Windows Explorer with Homegroup visible.

With the introduction of libraries, we also had an opportunity to remove some of the confusion between specialized media libraries that are created by Windows Media Player (WMP) or Windows Media Center (WMC). In previous versions of Windows, WMP would scan the entire hard drive on the computer to find media files and add them into a media library, but in Windows 7 this no longer has to happen. Since you already have Windows Explorer libraries, WMP and MCE just use those. If you add new locations to the libraries in Windows Explorer, WMP and MCE now automatically just pick them up since they are using the same common library for the content. We thus eliminated the need for people to manage multiple views of their data using different user experiences. In addition, WMP will also show the media libraries shared by the HomeGroup as nodes in the WMP navigation pane, mirroring the discovery and access model of Windows Explorer. So the same set of HomeGroup users you see in Explorer by default will also be shown to you in WMP as well.

Media Player with Homegroup

Similar to WMP, in WMC, there is a new “shared” section when browsing media like recorded TV, pictures, music and video. HomeGroup computers show up in this section and can be accessed easily. The content of those libraries that have been shared with the HomeGroup will show up and be accessible in WMC. This includes music, pictures and videos, but also recorded TV--which means that you can now browse and stream non-DRM TV (that was recorded on another computer in your home) from your laptop!

Media Center and Homegroup sharing.

Media Center and Homegroup sharing.

In addition to sharing out your media by default, we also wanted to make sharing additional content to the HomeGroup simple. In the past you had to worry about setting access control, as well as managing user passwords to make sharing work in the home. As we better understood how people interacted and worked at home, we realized that most were OK with enabling general access to all members of the household. So we built a few shortcuts into the sharing experience to enable this. Windows Explorer now features a new “share with” menu in the command bar:

Share with context menu in Windows Explorer

This enables you to select a library or folder and quickly share it with the home. It even enables you to make content writable by home members with one click, thus making it easy for people at home to easily collaborate on pictures or documents. This enables scenarios like importing digital photographs on one computer and editing them on another computer without making a copy. Once you share a folder with the home, it also shows up under the user in the HomeGroup node. This makes it incredibly easy to share anything on your computer to others in the home, and have them easily find and use them. We also recognize that some people need a way to easily bring some of this content off the network quickly and easily and make it private. The “share with” menu includes a shortcut to “share with nobody.” This option removes access to any content that has been previously shared and makes it private, thus enabling us to deliver on another requirement we observed people have in the home.

Printers and other devices work with HomeGroup as well

So what about devices? We’ve heard from you that sharing printers needs to be much simpler. While we have made it super easy to add printers to Windows, we needed to bring this simplicity to the home network. USB printers are still tied to a specific PC and can’t be shared out very easily. People typically email files to themselves to retrieve on another computer, or use USB keys to move their files to the computer with the printer. That had to change.

In a HomeGroup , if you have installed a USB printer that has a Windows logo, the other people on the HomeGroup would get this printer automatically installed on their computers. They won’t see a prompt, they won’t need to answer any questions – it would just show up, and “just work.” For non-Windows logoed printers, we need to ask the user for permission to install the printer. HomeGroup members will see a prompt that a printer has been found in the HomeGroup. Clicking on this prompt installs the driver. The reason we had to do this was to ensure that users consent to 3rd party code that hasn’t been through the rigors of the logo program. One of the big benefits of this system is that you no longer need to find, download, and install the driver manually on multiple computers. The driver (for the correct architecture) is just copied from the computer that has the physical printer attached. This saves time and network bandwidth. With a HomeGroup, there will no longer be a need to think about sharing a printer. If you attach one to a computer in the HomeGroup, everyone else will get it installed and ready to use.

Changing Homegroup settings to include printers.

In addition to printers, devices like photo frames, game consoles (such as the Xbox 360), and media receivers (like the Roku Soundbridge) can benefit from some of the easy setup, as well as all the shared media in the home. For setup, we have reduced all the UI within Windows that deals with these devices to one simple checkbox:

Enabling Homegroup sharing of devices such as photo frames, game consoles, and media receivers.

Once you are part of a HomeGroup, we turn on Windows Media Player streaming support, so not only will your computer detect other WMP libraries on the network and allow playback from them, devices would also be able to consume the shared media content. Another blog post will go into more detail on an exciting new feature called “play to” which would also be automatically enabled in a HomeGroup enabling you to send media from your PC to any supported picture frame or media receiver, and never have to deal with the minimal UI you have on these devices, which you can see in the demonstration of the Day 1 keynote at WinHEC. If you check a box in HomeGroup in Control Panel, all existing and future devices in the home will detect and consume the media on the HomeGroup computer. All these previously complicated settings are now simplified with HomeGroup.

Domain-joined computers can be part of a HomeGroup

The laptop buying trend doesn’t stop at home. Large corporations are also moving toward buying laptops for their employees. There is research out there that outlines productivity improvements with employees using laptops. This makes sense as most of these laptop-wielding employees bring their computers home and put in those extra email hours. However, most corporations require that their laptops be joined to a corporate domain. This enables system administrators to manage and maintain these computers. Domain-joined laptops are thus subject to more restrictions than regular home computers are. It’s hard to even locate another PC on the home network to access or share files, let along configure your domain-joined computer to print to a printer at home.

With HomeGroup, we wanted see if we could make things a little easier for these computers to come home. With more and more people working from home or having the option to these days, we wanted to see if they could enjoy some of the media content they have on the other PCs in the HomeGroup while they work. So in Windows 7, your domain-joined computer can join and participate in a HomeGroup. This enables the domain-joined computer to consume the media available on Windows 7 PCs in the home, watch TV through WMC, listen to music via WMP, or print to the printer on another HomeGroup PC all by entering the same key you provide to other computers in the HomeGroup.

The only difference is that sensitive content on the corporate laptop is never shared to the other HomeGroup computers. In essence, the domain-joined computer can see out (and consume) but no one can see in. We believe this meets the need for corporations to maintain security over documents while enabling our customers to enjoy a fun and interesting work environment at home, with access to all their media and home printers while they work. All you need is an existing HomeGroup, a domain-joined computer, and you can be rocking to your favorite tunes on your home network, while you catch up on all your important work.

Of course the ability to join a HomeGroup is a policy that can be managed by corporate domains as you would expect.

Create a HomeGroup with the Beta

Phew! I hope this post has given you some insight into some of our design decisions, as well as the capabilities of the feature. HomeGroup will highlight some of the cool capabilities Windows has had for a long time in a friendly and easy fashion and also build on some of the new plumbing and infrastructure in Windows 7, and we are very excited with its possibilities. It is important to note that none of this would be possible without the help of people around the world who have provided us with opportunities to listen to their feedback, observe their actions, and take note of their needs.

We know there will be lots of discussion around this feature once folks have had a chance to explore it.  It represents a new model for something that has arguably been very difficult to set up and so for most people seeing all this work will be a first and for many of us reading this blog we’ll be “mapping” our existing model to this new experience.  The best thing to do is just see if you can let Windows 7 run and do the work.  After some use you can then dive into the customization and configuration available to you.

To set up a HomeGroup you will need to install Windows 7 Beta on more than one PC on the same network and be sure to select Home as the network location if you want to automatically create (or join) a HomeGroup. 

Thanks,

Jerry

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  • I really wish HomeGroups could adapt to families with multiple configurations -- e.g. Mom's House and Dad's House should be able to be set up as homegroups that don't have to be joined or left every time a kid arrives or leaves.  

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  • Wow, it's Castle that was supposed to be in Vista... thanks for ripping Vista users off.

  • can someone please tell me how after joining a home group and leaving it now my hard drive is locked out and I can't figure out how to unlock it

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