Tech Ed: .net runs into enterprise quandry

A Microsoft technology that Bill Gates described last year as "probably the most important ... building block service" of the...

A Microsoft technology that Bill Gates described last year as "probably the most important ... building block service" of the company's broad .net initiative, is being redefined because of resistance from enterprise customers, company representatives acknowledged Microsoft's annual developer conference yesterday.

.Net My Services, previously known as Hailstorm, has long been described as a network of services controlled and managed by Microsoft and linked over the Internet that could be automatically accessed by consumers.

Enabled by a technology known broadly as Web services, it would allow software and content to be delivered over the Internet to users on any connected computing device.

Now Microsoft is recasting .net My Services into a technology that corporations or service providers will control and manage independently of Microsoft, while retaining the functionality it was meant to have all along.

First announced in early 2001, .Net My Services has come to include a set of more than 10 basic services such as calendaring, alerts and an electronic wallet that would be hosted by Microsoft's Internet service MSN. Microsoft had been recruiting partners such as eBay and American Express to customise those services or build their own that could then be plugged in to Microsoft's central hosting service.

"The original strategy began as one big cloud that MSN would host and anyone who wanted could build an application that would plug into that," said Adam Sohn, product manager for .net platform strategy.

Microsoft handed developers an early set of tools at its Professional Developer Conference in October to begin building .net My Services that would plug into that cloud. At the time, it discussed with attendees the business model for how it would sell software to developers.

However, Microsoft learned that the model failed to appeal to most of its enterprise customers, mainly because they did not want to have their customer data stored with MSN, Sohn said.

Instead, the enterprise customers interested in developing .net My Services asked Microsoft to offer a packaged version of the technology that they could purchase to build and host services on their own.

Examples of possible operators of such services included corporations that would create these Web services for their employees, as well as Internet service providers and Web portals that could offer services to their subscribers.

"We learned from everyone we talked to that the monolithic structure would not happen," Sohn said, having noted that customers signalled they were not interested in having a single store for all their customer information that was managed by Microsoft. "We know federation is the way to go."

While Microsoft has sided with its critics and decided to make the shift to the new model, it kept quiet most of its plans to have customers host the service on their own.

"We didn't announce it because we're delivering on the same vision," Sohn said, adding that the new federated approach still gives consumers the same benefits of accessing services and content as its original model.

Microsoft had taken some flak from consumer groups about the concept of having vast amounts of user data stored in a single warehouse. Most of the controversy surrounding .net My Services focused on the single sign-on authentication system called Passport, which allows users to access and manage their various services with a single name and password.

Ryan Freebern, programmer for Applied Science Associates, said: "Given Microsoft's past accomplishments in the field of security, Hailstorm seemed like a risky idea at best, and a downright catastrophe at worst."

There were also concerns that Microsoft would sell the information to marketers, said Barry Briggs, chief technical officer at Wheelhouse, a customer relationship management software company.

One analyst said that Microsoft may have learned the hard way that it went about promoting its Web services strategy poorly by first pitching it as a consumer service.

Dana Gardner, research director with Aberdeen Group, said: "They're focusing on the enterprise and not so much on the end user."

Expedia has already built Passport and .net Alerts into its system. The company, which was originally funded by Microsoft, said it is unfazed by Microsoft's changes, according to Suzi LeVine, director of product management for Expedia.

"We welcome a shift to offer the software to multiple operators. It continues to fulfil the goal of a more personalised and consistent user experience," LeVine said.

Microsoft executives stressed that the company is not abandoning its consumer services. However, it has not yet determined how it will package .net My Services for enterprise customers. The company added that as corporations and other customers decide to build the .net My Services technology on their own, it could be resurrected through MSN in the future.

"We've not changed our vision of user-centric Web services available from any place. What's changed is the question of the road we're taking to get there," Sohn said.

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