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Pay-to-Play: Microsoft erects .NET tollgate

How Hailstorm pays the Bill

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Some of Microsoft's .NET vaporware precipitated today, in the form of a HailStorm. HailStorm is the first piece of .NET to be pushed into public view, and at last we can see how some of the loose ends around .NET and Microsoft's Great Plains purchase are beginning to come together. The services are slated to go live in beta form late this year, with operational roll-out in 2002.

But almost unnoticed in the rush to discuss the usage (or abusage) of SOAP, XML and other technology specs is the more significant story. Microsoft promises to make Hailstorm a "business center", piped through the Passport hub. In other words, it's pay-to-play.

Or as Microsoft's Hailstorm white paper explains:-

"Microsoft will operate the HailStorm services as a business. HailStorm services will have real operational costs, and rather than risk compromising the user-centric model by having someone such as advertisers pay for these services, the people receiving the value - the end users - will be the primary source of revenue. "

That's richly ironic, as Microsoft has spent much of the past twenty years - quite justifiably - as positioning itself the good guys against such vertically integrated suppliers as IBM, eager to ply you with a lethal cocktail of their own brand hardware, software, services and - if they'd buttered up your CFO - financing too. The horizontal model has been encouraged by investors and VCs of course, because the promise was that new markets would be created and flourish. That was the conventional wisdom until the end of the last decade, when even Microsoft's erstwhile most vigorous defenders (the WSJ, for example) came to accept that the company was snuffing out as many business opportunities as it was creating. That's putting kindly.

Well now the wheel's turned full circle. Take this, for example:-

"Service operators will also have a certificate-based license relationship with Microsoft allowing them to use HailStorm services, which will make it possible to ensure that no service using HailStorm is abusive of the resources involved, affecting other users of the services. That certificate will make it possible to filter abusers of the system."

In another era, Microsoft might have been expected to sell these as 'building blocks' for a new tier of service provider companies and certification authorities. But not any more. Trading in its image of bug-eyed strangler for the new one of benevolent guardian of the oxygen tent is going to be quite a challenge, and this is how Microsoft will attempt it:-

X-Ray Specs

Hailstorm is a web-friendly variant on the ancient middleware ploy of leveraging back end data stores while trying to minimize the amount of new code that needs to be re-written. One example cited - of a telco offering users personalized phone services - comes straight from the CORBA marketing handbook of a decade ago. And SOAP as much an escape raft for Microsoft COM developers as it is a bold new way of computer interoperability.

Hailstorm specs define a namespace for the basics - including contacts, document storage, location and notifications - with the notifications being the element that's obliged to pass through Microsoft's own servers. Doesn't that mean your business communications are reliant on the uptime and availability of Microsoft's servers?

Oh yes it does, and Microsoft saw this one coming:-

"Microsoft has lots of experience, both good and bad, operating some of the largest sites on the Internet, including Hotmail, MSN, Microsoft.com, and Passport," it says ... and promises substantial investment to upgrade these server farms.

Sun's Scott McNealy has already promised to make much of Microsoft's recently-acquired taste for vertical integration, but he can hardly have started to mine this for comic potential.

As for the standards war - that's almost secondary. Microsoft says no MS-Run Time is required to use HailStorm, nor any Microsoft development tools, although that of course is dependent on third-party vendors producing implementations of BizTalk on non-Microsoft platforms. BizTalk server produces code that conforms to Microsoft's schema, rather than the W3C XSD schema standard, although a command line tool to convert Microsoft schema to W3C schema is provided ... hidden away in a sub-directory on the CD labeled "Clip Art". (We made that last part up, but you get the general picture). ®

Related Link

Microsoft's HailStorm White Paper

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