HailStorm in a teacup? Hope not

So Microsoft Corp. announced HailStorm, eh? I don’t know about you, but I think hailstorms are something to avoid. The idea of getting pummeled by lots of bits of ice is extremely unappealing. But obviously the term has more positive connotations for the hardy souls in the Microsoft marketing department who are acclimatized to the hostile Seattle weather.

Actually, product naming mistakes occur frequently. The Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, for example, was going to be named “The Silver Mist” until some linguistically inclined fellow pointed out that “mist” means, er, ordure in German.

Be that as it may, with HailStorm Microsoft is supposedly taking a big step into its .Net vision and, well, it will be…well, hum. You see, from what I can make out from Microsoft and all the sycophantic reportage that always surrounds its announcements, this is supposed to be really important. Alas, what there is to focus on so far is thin.

Allow me to digress yet again and note that I have spotted a profound and sad trend in the computer press over the past few months. The trend is to review products and announcements and not even look for the warts.

For example, I just test-drove a product called PC-Relocator from AlohaBob and thought it was feature-weak, badly documented and a poor value. Yet a number of authoritative voices in the trades and national publications (including The Wall Street Journal) gave it rave reviews.

Perhaps I’m just too picky, but I think not. I think product and technology analysis and review standards have fallen to an all-time low. And that is an important factor in the press’ handling of HailStorm, a set of Web services that are part of the framework of Microsoft’s .Net strategy.

It appears that HailStorm has something to do with Microsoft Passport (gee, that sounds really new), a Web-based version of HotMail (be still my beating heart), MSN Messenger, some Web services and what sounds like an Emperor’s New Clothes version of Microsoft Message Queue.

The first release of HailStorm will apparently include 14 services including MyAddress, MyProfile, MyContacts, MyLocation, MyNotifications and MyInbox (which will include voice mail and e-mail).

Underlying these services will be an XML architecture. And driving the adoption of HailStorm will be, if Microsoft can get enough momentum going, a raft of relationships that will make HailStorm services – at least in theory – highly desirable. Already eBay has signed on to use HailStorm to, it says, let users track in real-time the auctions they are participating in without logging on to eBay.

Microsoft’s director of business development in the platform strategy group, Charles Fitzgerald, has been quoted as saying, “The Internet business model needs a reboot,” which implies Microsoft is going to be the one to do it. Can you say, “rank hubris”?

And these services will not be free, oh no. You – yes, you there, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public – will be expected to pay for the privilege of being test pilots, and in the process put your on-line financial transactions in the hands of Microsoft.

Someone in Microsoft somewhere must be on illegal substances. First, this salami slicing of the public’s pocketbook to make revenue was tried with MSN and failed abjectly. Second, can you say, “gunning for AOL”? HailStorm is the wrong gun. Third, can you say “vaporware”? Fourth, why should we trust Microsoft to be the infrastructure for our on-line dealings?

I’m not saying that HailStorm is completely without value, but for all I’ve seen and heard, the reality of HailStorm – and for that matter, .Net – is still not established. Indeed, it looks more like the usual hand-waving by the Microsoft marketing machine than anything else.

Let’s just hope that given the apparently serious buy-in by many journalists as well as the likes of eBay, this storm isn’t in a teacup.

Gibbs is a contributing editor at Network World (US). He is at nwcolumn@gibbs.com.