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Science & Technology
The Microsoft HailStorm

"You have not seen anything yet"

From Diana J. Choyce
Apr 02 - 08, 2001

Microsoft kicked off its vision of the "mobile internet" at last week's CeBit Convention held in Hannover, Germany. It is not surprising that the vision is tightly intertwined with Microsoft's .Net strategy and with their software. And it also includes their newly announced HailStorm which is intended to help create robust mobile services that will provide business users and consumers with easy access to information when on the move. MS (Microsoft) has stated that they have partnership with mobile operators to cover over 90 per cent of all wireless subscribers worldwide. "You have not seen anything yet", said Microsoft vice-president Juha Christensen, referring to the software and services currently available on Microsoft-powered devices. To kick-start the development of new products, MS has set up four Mobile Solution Centres worldwide, the European one being located in Stockholm.

At CeBIT, Microsoft announced the creation of the first .Net-based wireless enterprise portal, in partnership with Germany's T-Mobil mobile operator. The portal will include news searches, Web browsing, email and messaging, and also provide a framework for the development of corporate wireless ASP services. The center of this initiative is the MS based Stinger smartphone platform.This platform is run on a version of Windows CE 3.0 and tailored for small screens and one hand operation. Stinger phones will be produced by Samsung, Sendo, Trium and HTC later this year. The phones will provide access to web based live streaming audio, mobile instant messaging, and a location based service called Tom Tom. In their quest to develop further mobile services, MS stated that they will open up Centres of Mobile Business Excellence jointly with Siemens Business Services, in Europe and the US. These will create .Net-based solutions, starting with an online travel booking system. MS also showed features of the new Outlook Mobile Manager. This platform features Intellishrink which uses natural language processing to compress text for mobile phone screens. Options include removing spaces, replacing long words with abbreviations, removing punctuation and, removing vowels. The Manager also allows one to set up profiles with different rules for email notifications. It can "learn" which messages are important to the user and forward them to one's mobile device.

Microsoft's center of "mobile gravity" is a new middleware program called HailStorm. Probably a well chosen name given its relationship with its users and competitors alike. HailStorm is scheduled to be launched next year, and will let its own applications and those built by independent software developers share data about a PC user's payment preferences, personal contacts, and calendar entries. It is intended as a behind the scenes communication between software programs that Microsoft calls. Net. Rather than tying information about a user's address, contacts, application settings, and other preferences to applications using the traditional Windows method of associating objects in a client-server architecture, HailStorm software will rely on storing that data in XML documents and calling it across the Internet via Microsoft's Simple Object Access Protocol. "The kind of dreams people have had about interoperability in this industry will finally be fulfilled by the XML revolution," says Bill Gates. "It's really a necessary part of this revolution that we have services like HailStorm." For instance, an online bookstore application would give notification of an incoming order, displaying on a user's PC desktop running Microsoft's upcoming Windows XP operating system. XP would include Microsoft Passport, a digital wallet service that authenticates users with E-commerce sites and automatically fills in their payment information. It would also include the ability for a user to start an instant-messaging session with a customer-service rep, using HailStorm calls.

As expected, this new MS venture has caused a rumble to be heard around the world. Most skeptics believe that this is just another angle to force developers to use MS technology. "It's always been their history with 'embrace and extend' to have a little bit of it open but to hold onto the main portion," said John Terris, a Microsoft developer and senior programmer with Kendall Placement Group Inc., in St. Louis. "I can see the same thing that has happened with Java happening here," Terris said. "They may release something for other platforms, but it won't work the same. If you're strictly a Microsoft shop, it'll work great for you. But if you're a non-Microsoft shop, it either won't be as stable or as fast." But what is troubling to some developers is that HailStorm schemas will remain Microsoft's intellectual property for now. "Microsoft is saying, 'We are open,' yet they're keeping a certain portion of what they're proposing proprietary," said John Le'Brecage, a developer and consultant in Vienna, Va. "The initiative seems to be all right for people who are very rah-rah Microsoft, but it's not OK for people who, don't necessarily want to use its platform." MS, of course, denies these rumors. Microsoft officials maintain that there can be no lock-in because HailStorm is based on open standards such as Extensible Markup Language and Simple Object Access Protocol. By using those standards, Web services can run on any platform or any device. "HailStorm is not focused on making these services accessible by Windows above anything else," said Brian Arbogast, vice president of Microsoft's personal services division. Arbogast said the company has a vested interest in making Windows the best platform for HailStorm, but he added, "The way these services will get ubiquitous usage is through open protocols and open access." Some partners and competitors are giving Microsoft the benefit of the doubt, saying Microsoft may live up to its promises, if only because the market demands it. "Microsoft has not led by example in this regard in the past," said Carl Ledbetter, chief technology officer of Novell Inc., in Provo, Utah. "But I think they are coming to the realization that this cannot be the way to proceed in the future." And the MS HailStorm goes on.