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Is HailStorm Really a Maelstrom?

When Microsoft Corp. Monday unveiled its first software-as-a-service set to a crowd of analysts and reporters, its very description drew immediate comparisons to the cross-platform interoperability of Sun Microsystem Inc.'s Java or to AOL.

But even the most bullish observers believe that becoming king-of-the-hill in the service providing field will be a difficult task for Microsoft to accomplish, even if its notion of providing a more "personalized user experience," holds true.

"HailStorm" is the name, and - coaxing developers to create Web services based on the increasingly-more-important XML standard - is the game, it seems. Essentially, the software titan aims to reach more users through cross-platform interoperability such as mobile instant messaging service akin to AOL's AIM service; consumers with a PC, handheld computer, cell phone or some other firm of Web-enabled mini device, would be alerted to goings-on via IM pop-up notes. Moreover, the fact that HailStorm will run on Palm or Unix, or other operating systems beyond Windows will potentially attract major consumer Web sites as partners.

Available online, Hailstorm would feature popular Microsoft services such as MSN Instant Messenger and its Passport identification service that stores personal data like credit card information in a virtual wallet. It could also include a personal calendar, contact book and inbox. Think of Hailstorm as a friend that contacts you frequently to keep you in the loop. Think of HailStorm as Microsoft's answer to AOL.

Think no such thing, said P.C. McGrew, president of IT strategy consulting firm McGrew + McDaniel Group Inc, based in Hurst, Texas.

McGrew said it seems as though Microsoft is taking aim more closely at companies who preside over Bluetooth -- the heavily-debated short-range radio technology aimed at simplifying communications among Net devices and between devices and the Internet.

"My take on it is that they are taking on the Bluetooth consortia," McGrew told InternetNews.com Tuesday. "It looks more like they are going after that market and are looking at them with lust in their hearts. From what they said about using wireless components, it just sounded more like Bluetooth."

McGrew said AOL users are generally more PC-prone, and therefore make up a different marketplace than the air of mobile emphasis that Microsoft exhaled in its announcement Monday. In the U.S., McGrew argued, this air is much more rarefied than it is in Europe or Japan. No, McGrew said Microsoft seems to be going after the heavyweights in Europe -- the Nokias and Ericssons of the world.

"Microsoft likes going after the big guys," McGrew said. "I'm not sure if MSFT has a B2B strategy in the long run, but I don't think the marketplace will buy it."

As for Microsoft's harping on the XML aspects and admitting they would like developers to start creating services with the framework of that standard, McGrew said it might not sit well with some programmers.

"Look at this framework," McGrew said. "They said XML but when you start to read between the lines you have to worry. This time it wasn't Gates standing up at Internet World or Seybold and showing it all. This was 'Hi, we have this fabulous state-of-the-art idea and you have to trust us.' Then they hand out 32 white papers, but I bet when you start to read them you realize that there is a rigidity involved that most programmers won't like. I don't see programmers giving up freedom they already have."

"I don't see programmers as stopping writing Web pages that use cookies."

McGrew said HailStorm smacks of the same formality that IBM Corp.'s doomed Systems Application Architecture (SAA) did 15 years ago. McGrew said the suite ran the gamut of storage solutions, managing mainframe techniques and other aspects developers take interest in. However, she said, after sifting through most of the 20 technical volumes SAA came with, she concluded that Big Blue was trying to formalize development -- a no-no among developers because it was impossible to control deadlines for every project.

"We watched it die," McGrew said. "That is what I see when I look at HailStorm."

McGrew view may be a pessimistic vessel amid a sea of true believers.

Morgan Stanley Dean Witter analyst Mary Meeker said HailStorm was a breath of fresh air. Meeker told On24 HailStorm is a move in the right direction, albeit a long-term one. Meeker admitted it would not be easy and that Microsoft will need its best development team to back the initiative. Meeker also validated McGrew's suggestion that the software giant suffered from the lack of strong third-party developer demand for its developer toolkits, which would make software compatible with the .NET strategy.

A Goldman Sachs research report also found HailStorm to have an optimistic presence on the horizon for Microsoft, if for nothing else but the messaging-intensive spin the company put on its unveiling:

"HailStorm is a layer of the .NET platform that provides a set of XML Web Services (interoperable and reusable components) that developers and other software vendors can use to enable applications such as messaging across platforms. We believe messaging/notification may be the killer application for the next generation of devices and this is strategic new technology for the repositioning of Microsoft."

Like Meeker though, GS acknowledged it would not be easy.

"The company's .NET vision and strategy is a radical effort to redirect the industry for the next generation of the Internet and faces considerable obstacles and competitive challenges from Sun, Oracle, AOL and others."

But bullish analysts and reporters aren't the only parties who have chimed in some positive notes about HailStorm. Microsoft, too, has found its own impressive list of believers: American Express Co., Click Commerce Inc., eBay Inc., Expedia.com Inc. and Groove Networks Inc. all showed conceptual demos illustrating HailStorm-based scenarios.

"By taking advantage of Microsoft .NET technology, we can open up the eBay API to an even larger community of developers," said eBay Inc. President and CEO Meg Whitman. "We think this will be a big boost for our API and help eBay's business spread further and faster on the Web."

As for hailing itself during Monday's announcement, Microsoft, interestingly, touted the privacy capabilities of its Passport authentication application, which allows users to sign on when they switch on their computers and then to be recognized anywhere on the Web.

In a press statement, the company said HailStorm will "allow users to manage and protect their personal information, as opposed to today's world in which it is scattered across the technology landscape, with no ability to control the privacy of their information."

Bob Muglia, group vice president for .NET services, was even more strident in his assessment of Passport.

"Hailstorm" turns the industry debate over online privacy on its head," said Muglia. "It starts with the fundamental assumption that the user owns and controls their personal information so only the user decides with whom they share their information and under what terms."

Microsoft will set up data centers to handle billing, as well as power .Net foundation services such as Passport. Those data centers would house names, addresses, credit card numbers, as well as the private correspondence and computer files millions of people.

Clearly, and despite the number of times that Microsoft's sites have come under attack from computer hackers in recent months, the company is asking for a modicum of trust.

HailStorm is to be released for beta test in the second half of calendar 2001 and general availability by the end of 2001 or early 2002.