The announcement clears away some of the mystery surrounding the nut and bolts of Microsoft's .NET strategy by showing consumers how the new services will work. Microsoft will make the initial set of HailStorm services available in a broad beta release later this year, with a full release scheduled for 2002.
Microsoft has enlisted the help of five major partners, including American Express, ClickCommerce, eBay, Expedia and Groove to showcase HailStorm prototypes and conduct conceptual demonstrations of how the new services will work.
According to Microsoft's announcement, HailStorm will help software developers emphasize the interactivity between consumers and their software, and will be largely based on the company's existing Passport service.
The Redmond, Washington-based company will aim HailStorm at personal and business users who want to access their personal information, such as calendars and phone books, from whatever machine they are using -- not unlike AOL's Web-based service, where subscribers can access their personal data.
Microsoft said HailStorm would be useful to online shoppers by making it easy to retrieve consumer information already being stored online.
The company cited an online travel agency as an example of HailStorm's ability to target specific offerings to users based on their personal consumer history, without asking the user from having to re-enter personal information.
In HailStorm's initial version, users will be able to access Web services that are equipped with detailed personal information, such as address books, payment preferences, device settings, calendar and inbox services, and raw document storage. HailStorm will operate on an open-access model, meaning that users can access the system from any PC or device that is connected to the Internet, regardless of which operating system, underlying platform or network provider is being used. Thus, Microsoft has found a way to steer those working on a Unix system or Palm handheld device toward Microsoft software.
Each of the HailStorm services will be based on XML (Extensible Markup Language), freeing up developers to use open industry standards. The services will be available without necessarily using Microsoft tools such as Visual Studio.NET.
Despite the interactive qualities of the .NET initiative, however, Microsoft says that HailStorm will grant users ultimate control over which companies and technologies gain access to their personal information -- an issue that is almost certain to draw close scrutiny from online privacy advocates.
However, free access between devices does not translate into free-of-charge. Microsoft has decided to detour around the tight online advertising market by passing the cost of the services directly on to the consumers. "Rather than risk compromising the user-centric model by having advertisers pay for them, the people receiving the value -- end users -- will be the primary source of revenue," Microsoft said.
"HailStorm will help move the Internet to end-user subscriptions, in which users pay for value received."