Microsoft readies a HailStorm of Web services

The first services Microsoft Corp. plans to deliver as part of its grand .Net initiative will be a “HailStorm,” say company executives. But don’t visualize balls of solid ice denting cars and ruining crops in the Midwest – Microsoft envisions a flow of consumer services designed to make it easier to navigate, search, and (especially) shop on the Net.

HailStorm is Microsoft’s code name for a set of user-oriented Web services that the company plans to begin delivering by the end of June, starting with a greatly enhanced version of Microsoft’s Passport user authentication technology. A second component, due out next year, will provide a “notification” capability that developers can use to provide users with many kinds of information in a timely manner.

Those and other services announced Monday will provide the “plumbing” for Microsoft’s .Net service architecture aimed at providing users with software and other services over the Internet on a subscription basis. “This [HailStorm] is the most important of the .Net building blocks,” said Bill Gates, chair and chief software architect, leading Monday’s presentation here.

Consumer services pitched

A series of consumer-oriented scenarios gave a glimpse of how HailStorm services will let users access information, “any time, any place, and on any device.” Executives from several companies, including American Express, online auctioneer EBay, and Microsoft’s online travel agency Expedia, described how they’ll use the technology.

For instance, in an American Express demo, an enhanced version of Microsoft’s MSN Messenger software notifies a customer of the arrival of a book that he or she wants. When the user clicks on the book vendor’s link in the notification message, the bookstore’s Web page launches and the user is invited to purchase the book. Because the consumer’s credit card number, mailing address, and other information would already be stored in the upgraded Passport, the transaction would be quick and require very few keystrokes.

“You should never have to enter information multiple times,” Gates adds.

In another scenario, an airline passenger uses MSN Messenger to request that automatic messages about the flight’s status be sent to the pager, Web phone, or personal digital assistant of the person picking him or her up at the airport. MSN Messenger’s Buddy List capability is used to let the passenger pick who should receive the messages. Likewise, EBay, which has announced its auction software will work with .Net services, says MSN Messenger’s instant messaging capability could be harnessed to give bidders up-to-the-minute information on a bid’s status.

Microsoft plans to host

Microsoft plans to provide a slew of user services in HailStorm over the next few years. Some will be free and others will be available for a subscription fee, but all will be hosted in Microsoft’s data centers. The announcement generated some grumbling about customers’ security and privacy, among the analysts and press at Microsoft’s event.

“The user is in control of their own information,” says Bob Muglia, group vice president of Microsoft’s .Net services group. “We’re making a commitment to the users that Microsoft won’t mine the data, or sell or target users’ HailStorm data,” he adds.

Additionally, Gates promises the company will not start charging for any service that it already provides for free. It will charge only for new or enhanced services, he says. Of course, Microsoft already plans to offer its Office suite of user applications on a subscription basis.

Among the online consumer services Microsoft plans to provide in HailStorm are information on personal profiles, addresses, and documents; the user’s current location; an electronic wallet; calendar functions; contacts; and a universal in-box for all e-mail and instant messages.

Pay from anywhere

Perhaps most surprising were commitments by Gates and other company executives to support access to the HailStorm services from any device. They demonstrated those services running on a Palm PDA, a Pocket PC, and a RIM Blackberry handheld, as well as on a Sun Microsystems workstation running Sun’s Solaris Unix and on a PC running Red Hat Linux.

The question remains open as to whether consumers and others will accept subscription services on the Internet, which has been largely free so far. But at least one analyst feels that Microsoft is making a bold move that it cannot avoid.

“The [competitive market] forces out there are driving Microsoft away from shrink-wrapped software, and [HailStorm] is Microsoft putting their foot in the water,” says Jean Bozman, a research director at analyst firm IDC.

In that regard, another analyst says Microsoft’s latest moves may put it out in front of competitors.

“It’s a compelling vision that will excite a lot of people,” says Thomas Murphy, program director for application delivery strategies at Meta Group. “I just want to be sure that I have control over my daughter’s credit card,” he adds.

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