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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

June 6, 2007 at 3:54 PM

Will Microsoft buy or bury Cozi?

Microsoft is apparently going after the “kitchen PC” market again with a special version of Windows Vista and a set of online services.

Reporter turned blogger Mary Jo Foley said today that Microsoft is developing a “kitchen computing environment” that includes a family calendar, recipe center, entertainment features and a shared bulletin board.

That sounds exactly like the software and services developed by Cozi, a Pioneer Square company started two years ago by ex-Microsofties Robbie Cape and Jan Miksovsky.

Cozi developed a custom desktop for kitchen PCs and a set of services that let users access their calendars and shopping lists from mobile phones and remote PCs.

When I interviewed Cape for a story that ran in February, he told me Microsoft had been working on a kitchen PC/services product with a 50-person team but the project, code-named Ohana, had fizzled.

I wonder if Mary Jo is hearing about a resurrection of Ohana or a new effort. Would Microsoft start completely from scratch on this kind of project?

A kitchen PC may sound weird, but I think it makes sense if you think of these machines as a console/command center for families. The idea is to have a computer that’s always on in a central place so families can check and update calendars, coordinate schedules and activities, plan meals and leave messages for each other — in other words, a digital version of a refrigerator door covered with notes.

They can also be used to display photo collections, control a digital music collection and play TV if the systems have a tuner.

Cozi also sees the kitchen PC as an opportunity to target ads at homemakers, suggesting products for their shopping lists and menu planning, for instance. That’s surely part of Microsoft’s plans as well.

I think there’s a lot of potential for kitchen PCs, but so far the hardware has held them back. PCs are usually too bulky, especially for the kitchen, where counter space is at a premium. I’ve said the kitchen PC will take off when it’s a touch-screen device that can be hung on the wall like a picture frame or a small flat-panel TV.

That may be where Microsoft is heading. Mary Jo said the kitchen project is being done by the Tablet PC team, which has already helped computer makers produce thin, slate-like computers with touch-screen input.

I wonder if Cozi’s founders will try to sell the company to Microsoft, form a partnership or duke it out with their former employer.

UPDATE: News of the Microsoft project was apparently a surprise to Cape, Cozi’s chief executive, but he doesn’t sound too worried.

Cape noted that Cozi has a head start and 175,000 families registered as users. From his response:

“The sad truth is that this vision is not new; the industry has been talking about this for years and years. The question is: who is executing towards the vision successfully?”

Cape said it takes several iterations to get new products ready for mass-market consumption. With the kitchen PC, HP’s TouchSmart has started that process on the hardware side, he said.

“On the software application front, our goal with Cozi Central has been to begin that iteration cycle. We are on a mission to understand the dynamic of the family better than any other software company; we set out to build the most appropriate design and experience, addressing the core family needs … In this space, history has shown that it all comes down to execution.”

Comments | Topics: Microsoft, Startups

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