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.

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