In the latest of a periodic series of policy statements for the company's customer base, Ballmer outlined Microsoft's ambitious plans for digital rights management services, which straddle the line between the entertainment industry and ordinary corporate business.
Microsoft uses the series of e-mails, which are sent roughly once a month, to highlight what issues its top executives see as most important in driving development and use of their products.
"Some of technology's potential?has not been fully realized, because of concerns about illegal use of digital information, about confidentiality and about privacy," Ballmer wrote. "E-commerce in music and movies has been slowed, because artists and publishers have been concerned about protecting their copyrighted works from illegal use. More broadly, businesses don't exchange digital information with customers and partners as freely as they might, because they fear it could fall into the wrong hands."
The e-mail contained few if any new tidbits of information about details of Microsoft's technology or strategy. But as a policy statement, it highlighted for customers one of the key features that the software company sees as an impetus for growth across its product line in the next few years.
Most digital rights management news in the past few years has focused on media businesses such as music and movies. A generation of companies rose hoping to sell antipiracy technology to record labels and movie studios, and fell again after gaining little traction with the entertainment giants.
Microsoft, which is now seeing its technology protect songs distributed through subscription music services and, has been one of the few companies starting to see significant support.
As outlined by Ballmer in Wednesday's e-mail and elsewhere, the company takes a much broader view of rights management technology, however.
The company has built a different set of, which will form a key component of the upcoming Windows Sever 2003 product and will ultimately work with other products such as Office and Outlook.
The idea is to protect corporate and personal data from finding its way outside the circle of people who are intended to see or use it, the company says. Just as songs could be pre-loaded with rules that prevent them from being copied or distributed online, e-mails or Word documents could be wrapped with protections that prevent them from being sent to unauthorized individuals or outside a corporate firewall.
"As these technologies become widespread, their protection will help encourage wider sharing of information within and between organizations, improving communication and productivity by assuring information workers of the confidentiality of their documents and data," Ballmer wrote.
The strategy is still in its early stages and--in its broadest terms--has drawn criticism from proponents of non-Microsoft operating systems and tools. Open-source advocates in particular are worried that Microsoft's broader "Trustworthy Computing" campaign, which would involve authenticating software programs as well as documents and media files, is in part aimed at pushing software such as the Linux operating system out of the market.
Microsoft has not set pricing for its corporate Rights Management Services product, or indicated whether it would involve a recurring subscription fee or a more typical license.