Microsoft Corp. last week outlined what it hailed as the most important building block of its .Net distributed Web services strategy. But the consumer-oriented technology called HailStorm is barely a cloud on corporate users' horizons.
Despite last week's extensive briefings led by company Chairman Bill Gates, IT executives said Microsoft's plans are still vague on the business aspects of the software vendor's ambitious .Net initiative.
"Microsoft markets things well, but there are lots of gaps in what they're promising with .Net," said John Donovan, vice president of MIS at The Orvis Co. in Manchester, Vermont. Nevertheless, the distributor of fly-fishing and hunting equipment plans to implement Microsoft's Web services down the road, even though Donovan said he has a "number of questions and concerns" about when the various pieces of the .Net platform will be stable and readily available for use.
HailStorm is a set of XML-based Web services, such as instant messaging and calendaring, that will let users port personal data among their various computing devices and e-commerce sites. It's built on top of Microsoft's Passport single sign-on and authentication architecture.
Microsoft plans to charge US$20 to $50 annually for the services, analysts said. The beta version is to ship this fall.
When Microsoft launched the .Net concept last summer, the focus was on business users, said Rob Enderle, an analyst at Giga Information Group, but now the company is addressing consumer issues.
"This would have only an indirect impact on business-to-business Web services," Enderle said. "HailStorm is targeted at individuals and businesses that work with individuals."
The role that HailStorm services will play in communicating with the back-end systems and Web sites of trading partners and corporate customers needs clarification, users said.
"It's not clear that HailStorm fits into what we're doing," said Bob Hays, vice president of derivatives development at ABN Amro Bank, a division of ABN Amro Holding NV in Amsterdam.
The bank currently uses Web services that were built with HTTP and XML to make requests for data and services from other Web sites. With these Web services in place, the bank can aggregate financial information from various institutions into a single account statement for customers.
The Simple Open Access Protocol, a standard endorsed by Microsoft and other vendors, is a key part of ABN Amro's Web services infrastructure. But Hays said that .Net isn't the point.
"HailStorm will be useful on Microsoft Windows, but we have lots of other non-Microsoft platforms, and being able to use it along with other platforms is what would really bring value to us," Hays said.
Rob Kogan, vice president of MIS at Nautilus Insurance Co., a general liability and property insurance firm, said his interest in Microsoft's Web services is in automating the exchange of data with trading partners.
"If they come up with a better mousetrap for performing a business function and automating it in the form of a Web services, then we'll take a look at it," he said.
Redmond's HailStorm Forecast
Microsoft's HailStorm targets individual users with a number of communication services, such as e-mail, instant messaging, contact lists and an electronic wallet.
For example, HailStorm would permit an e-commerce site to tap into a user's personal preferences and payment data without the user having to key in the information. The Web application could then port that data to different computing environments as directed by a user's preferences.
Bill Gates called HailStorm "the most important .Net building block service."
.Net is a middleware layer that lets applications swap functionality with other applications and devices over the Web.Microsoft's Passport is the sign-on mechanism for HailStorm. The vendor plans to charge customers an annual subscription fee for the service.
Microsoft's forthcoming Windows XP, the next generation of Windows 2000, will incorporate HailStorm's communication services. Formerly code-named Whistler and slated for release in the fourth quarter, Windows XP is geared for consumers and uses the same source code as Windows 2000 and Windows NT.
A set of HailStorm beta application programming interfaces are due to ship in the fourth quarter and be available to consumers in the first half of next year. The software developer's kit will be available in the first half of 2002, said company officials.
HailStorm will also support the Linux, Unix, Mac OS and Palm OS operating systems.
According to Microsoft, none of its runtimes or tools are required to build HailStorm services. Forthcoming versions of Visual Studio.Net, the .Net framework and servers will fully support HailStorm, officials said.
-- Lee Copeland Gladwin