Can Microsoft have its cake and eat it, too? The company's new HailStorm technology for letting computer users control how they share personal data among applications and Web sites exemplifies the new breed of software Microsoft calls .Net. It's built for the Internet, powered by XML, and largely unshackled from PC-era protocols. But HailStorm's slickest functions-automatically verifying users' identities for online purchases and sending customized notifications to their PC or handheld computer-depend heavily on an upcoming version of Windows, the legacy Microsoft can't leave behind.
Small wonder. Desktop versions of Windows contributed more than 31% of Microsoft's revenue during its second quarter ended Dec. 31, and the company's working hard to ship Windows XP, its new home PC and business client, by the fall. "We're trying to build a .Net infrastructure that will be part of Windows in the client, part of Windows in the server, and also available as a set of services out in the cloud," CEO Steve Ballmer said in a recent interview.
At an event in Redmond, Wash., on March 19, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates unveiled HailStorm, the code name for a set of XML tags for storing data about users' identity, computers, documents, calendar entries, contacts, and other information; and the Simple Object Access Protocol (Soap) calls needed to use that data in other applications. It's a departure from the way most PC software is written-rather than tying information to specific programs, HailStorm posits a standardized way of sharing it among far-flung apps and Web sites, in a way that's controlled by consumers. "HailStorm is not exclusively tied to any particular operating system-not even Windows," says Gates. Use of XML and Soap make the technology accessible by a variety of clients, Microsoft says.
But the software company has a daunting challenge as it stakes out new markets in Web software, Internet servers, and behind-the-scenes "services" to simplify E-business. How should Microsoft embrace Internet standards, while convincing IT shops and independent software developers to use its products in concert-minus the proprietary hooks between systems and apps that's compelled this integration in the past? One solution: making many HailStorm services reliant upon Windows XP.
"They'll migrate more of this .Net world they're building into Windows," says Jack Ozzie, VP of developer services at Groove Networks. At the March 19 event, the developer of peer-to-peer collaboration software showed how HailStorm software could enhance its app. In the demo, users could invite colleagues from their MSN Instant Messenger buddy list into a Groove session. Invitees could join directly from the instant-message window.
Whiz-bang features like that will require Windows XP under the hood. The system includes a processor for Soap messages, automatic log-on to Microsoft's Passport digital wallet when users log on to Windows, and the ability for users to select a set of Web sites from which they want to receive on-screen notifications, such as confirmation that an order's been placed. "Over time, I'd expect to see more and more capabilities in Windows that take advantage of HailStorm services," says Microsoft business development director Charles Fitzgerald.
Steve Chazin, marketing director at Web services software vendor Bowstreet, says Microsoft "has to build momentum around tying [Web services] to XP," in order to push upgrades of the software.
Microsoft plans to sell a suite of HailStorm Web services itself, and license the architecture to other companies. A beta version of the HailStorm schema is due by the end of this year, and live services from Microsoft are scheduled for release next year. Over time, more Microsoft apps would natively store data as XML. But to achieve even a measure of standardization, Microsoft needs industry buy-in.
How likely is that? "I even question XML sometimes," says Kerry Gerontianos, president of development shop Incremax Technologies Corp. in New York, and president of the International Association of Microsoft Certified Partners, a trade group. "Everybody's saying XML is out there-it's the thing," he says. But "I don't really think many development shops are using it one a daily basis. That's really what the Internet needs."