Getting caught in a big hailstorm

By now we're all used to the idea that Microsoft's client strategy is always tinged with a little proprietary hypocrisy, but its past performance pales in comparison to the backpedalling revision that today characterises Microsoft's Office and Windows client strategy.

By now we're all used to the idea that Microsoft's client strategy is always tinged with a little proprietary hypocrisy, but its browser and Java support shenanigans pale in comparison to the backpedalling revision that today characterises Microsoft's Office and Windows client strategy.

For a company that has been pushing XML web services as the answer for anything related to information sharing for well over two years, it's disappointing to realise that Microsoft Office won't support XML until version 11 ships, hopefully sometime in 2003. And what is even more astounding is that the XML web services support in Office 11 is more than likely going to be crippled because while Office will be able to consume XML web services, Microsoft client software won't be able to function as a web service in that release, and may not in any future release either.

How Microsoft managed to develop this convoluted do-as-I-say-rather-than- as-I-do web services client strategy harkens all the way back to its ongoing Java war with Sun. In its haste to limit Java's influence to being a language rather than a platform, Microsoft fully embraced XML while simultaneously pushing for a software-as-service business model known as Hailstorm.

The idea behind Hailstorm was that Microsoft would convert most of the features of Microsoft Outlook into a series of services using XML. This model would then be applied to Microsoft Office and a range of other applications such as the Great Plains suite Microsoft recently purchased.

But then a funny thing happened. People at Microsoft realised that XML was even more open than HTML browsers or Java. So by embracing XML, Microsoft was about to dismantle the proprietary Windows application architecture that drove the company's profits. After all, people who could share data across any application could buy any application that supported XML.

After reaching this conclusion, the backpedalling began in earnest. Microsoft acknowledged that its business partners and major customers were wary of its intentions around Hailstorm, and more recently it said Hailstorm needed to be reworked to support emerging XML standards. Of course in the past Microsoft never cared what anybody thought about its business model. And the beauty of the software-as-service model is you can slipstream in new technologies and features, so there's no need for a major rework. But what's really upset Microsoft is the need to make sure XML does not marginalise Windows by being too open.

Fortunately, XML exists outside Microsoft and a lot of new and interesting things are happening all over the enterprise. XML-enabled corporate portals are becoming the new user-interface environment. Application vendors are embracing XML across the board and companies such as BEA, Curl and Droplets are creating clients that are both rich and thin. Even more astounding, startup companies such as Altio and Digital Harbor have both created ways to render XML data inside rich clients.

So Microsoft needs to remember what everybody who has been caught in a hailstorm already knows. Once you go outside, there's no escape.

Vizard is editor in chief of US IDG publication InfoWorld. Send letters for publication in Computerworld NZ to Computerworld Letters.

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