Microsoft executives have detailed a key piece of the company's strategy for delivering user-centric Web services.
The strategy, code-named Hailstorm, is an XML-based platform that lives on the Internet, and is designed to give users more control over their information.
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said that users are currently faced with disconnected islands of data, such as PCs, mobile phones, PDAs and other devices. Hailstorm is designed to combine the different islands and move the data behind the scenes so users don't have to move it themselves, thereby providing Microsoft's latest mantra of anytime, anywhere access to data from any device, according to Gates.
To that end, Microsoft will provide a set of services under Hailstorm, such as notifications, e-mail, calendaring, contacts, an electronic wallet and favourite Web destination, designed for more effective communication.
"Stitching those islands together is about having a standard schema, in fact a rich schema, for tying all that info together," he added.
That schema will be constructed largely of XML, which Gates called the foundation of Hailstorm.
"The kind of dreams people have had about interoperability in this industry will finally be fulfilled with the XML foundation," he said.
The first end point of Hailstorm will be Microsoft's forthcoming Windows XP, the next generation of Windows 2000, due later this year. Gates said that XP makes it easier to get at Hailstorm services.
Although Microsoft said Hailstorm will work with platforms from other vendors, such as Linux, Unix, Apple Macintosh and Palm, the company maintained that Hailstorm services will work most effectively with Windows platforms.
Gates also said that Hailstorm will work with and rely upon countless third-party applications.
Bob Muglia, Microsoft's vice president of .NET services group, came onstage to address the issue of security, a significant concern to users that Web-services vendors have not thoroughly addressed.
Although Microsoft and third parties will host Hailstorm services, Muglia said that users will retain control over their information.
"Microsoft might run a server, but we don't own the data and we won't use it," he continued.
Muglia added that use of Hailstorm data will be based on affirmative consent, in which users choose who can see the data and who cannot. Furthermore, Microsoft will not mine, sell, target or publish Hailstorm data, he said.
Analysts said that Microsoft has more clearly articulated its Web-services strategy than other vendors, such as Sun, Oracle, IBM and Hewlett-Packard, and is at least winning the vapourware wars. Microsoft plans to tap into the 160 million users of its Passport single-sign-on service as early users of Hailstorm, and will offer them free services.
Gates added that Hailstorm will consist of a certain level of free services, but customers that want more will be charged for it.
"As we deliver valuable services over the Internet, we're confident that users will be willing to pay for them," Muglia said.
Microsoft initially will target business users, and that consumers are a longer-term goal, Muglia added.