Microsoft this week unveiled a new initiative aimed at getting devices to automatically connect securely to networks and configure themselves, with a technology called Windows Rally, to be built into Windows Vista.

Buffalo, which makes wireless gear, and Metabolic, which focuses on software for networked consumer products, became the first to implement Windows Rally Technologies in the Buffalo LinkTheater Network Media Player, demonstrated this week at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC). The device allows consumers to play media from a PC in other rooms of a house over a wireless network.

Rally allows hardware to automatically be discovered and connected to a network, like the zeroconf technology developed by an Apple employee and implemented in Mac OS X in the form of Bonjour. The automatic configuration aspect of Rally is based on Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), a set of protocols promoted by the the UPnP Forum.

It also creates a streamlined way for network security to be set up, like initiatives such as JumpStart from Atheros or Broadcom's SecureEasySetup, designed for wireless. Rally's system involves entering a PIN, according to Microsoft. "When the Buffalo LinkTheater Network Media Player is added to the network, the consumer simply enters another PIN on the Windows Vista PC to activate the device. At this point, the LinkTheater is fully configured and ready to use," the company said in a statement.

Microsoft has published technical data on the set of Rally technologies, saying that adoption of it can not only make life easier for users, but will simplify things for hardware makers as well. "Microsoft Windows Rally technologies provide a platform for network-connected devices to ensure effortless, reliable, more secure connectivity and rich experiences for users who connect their devices to the Internet or to computers running the Microsoft Windows operating system," Microsoft said in an overview on its Web site.

Rally is Microsoft's latest attempt to establish a platform for automatic network connection and setup. According to Microsoft, it is the new name for what used to be called Windows Connect Now, which was launched only two years ago with Windows XP Service Pack 2.

Connect Now was, however, quite different in some obvious ways. Microsoft did not publicise the technology much, but it allowed users to save network configuration information on a USB flash drive, then transfer the information to other devices by inserting the drive. The devices would then use the data to automatically link up, according to Microsoft. However, Connect Now required hardware makers not only to support the correct protocols, but to include a USB socket in their devices.

The programme will only be of any use if a significant proportion of hardware vendors support it, according to industry observers. "It requires every hardware vendor of scale to sign on to make it worthwhile," said blogger Glenn Fleishman of Wi-Fi Net News. "Otherwise, you’ll have little Balkanised oceans of interoperability."