- Microsoft executives have detailed a key piece of the company's strategy for delivering user-centric Web services.
The strategy, code-named Hailstorm, is a new XML-based platform that lives on the Internet, and is designed to transform the user experience into one in which users have more control over their information.
"It's probably the most important .NET building block service," said Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates. "This is a revolution where the user's creativity and the power of all their devices can be used."
Currently, Gates said, users are faced with disconnected islands of data, such as PCs, cell phones, PDAs, and other devices. Hailstorm is designed to combine the different islands and move the data behind the scenes so users don't have to move it themselves, thereby providing Microsoft's latest mantra of anytime, anywhere access to data from any device, according to Gates.
To that end, Microsoft will provide a set of services under Hailstorm, such as notifications, e-mail, calendaring, contacts, an electronic wallet, and favorite Web destination, designed for more effective communication.
"Stitching those islands together is about having a standard schema, in fact a rich schema, for tying all that info together," he added.
That schema will be constructed largely of XML, which Gates called the foundation of Hailstorm.
"The kind of dreams people have had about interoperability in this industry will finally be fulfilled with the XML foundation," he said.
The first end point of Hailstorm will be Microsoft's forthcoming Windows XP, the next generation of Windows 2000, due later this year. Gates said that XP makes it easier to get at Hailstorm services.
"Hailstorm is not exclusively tied to any particular OS," he added.
Although Microsoft said that Hailstorm will work with platforms from other vendors, such as Linux, Unix, Apple Macintosh, and Palm, the company maintained that Hailstorm services will work most effectively with Windows platforms.
Gates also said that Hailstorm will work with and rely upon countless third-party applications.
Ray Ozzie, CEO of Groove Networks, came to the press event to demonstrate how Web services will work with his company's peer-to-peer application. Hailstorm services make it easier, for instance, for people to tie all their contact information together, and to transfer it between applications and devices, he said.
"The services that are inherent to Hailstorm give the user a much richer experience," Ozzie added.
Bob Muglia, Microsoft's vice president of .NET services group, came onstage to address the issue of security, a significant concern to users that Web-services vendors have not thoroughly addressed.
Although Microsoft and third parties will host Hailstorm services, Muglia said that users will retain control over their information.
"Microsoft might run a server, but we don't own the data, and we won't use it," he continued.
Muglia added that use of Hailstorm data will be based on affirmative consent, in which users choose who can see the data, and who cannot. And Microsoft will not mine, sell, target, or publish Hailstorm data.
Analysts said that Microsoft has more clearly articulated its Web-services strategy than other vendors, such as Sun, Oracle, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard, and is at least winning the vaporware wars.
"Microsoft seems to be out front with this, and also already able to take advantage of 160 million Passport users," said Rick Sherlund, a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs, in New York.
Indeed, Microsoft plans to tap into the 160 million users of its Passport single-sign-on service as early users of Hailstorm, and will offer them free services.
Gates added that Hailstorm will consist of a certain level of free services, but customers that want more will be charged for it.
"As we deliver valuable services over the Internet, we're confident that users will be willing to pay for them," Muglia said.
Muglia added that Microsoft initially will target business users, and that consumers are a longer-term goal.
Sherlund likened the expected adoption by IT departments of Hailstorm to previous Microsoft programs.
"IT will be pulled in to this just as it was pulled in to supporting Office and Windows. They may find themselves in a similar position with Hailstorm," Sherlund said.