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Making sense of Microsoft's HailStorm

Why will people pay for Web-based productivity services when they already have them on their desktop? Chris LeTocq says the answer may be found in Office.Net.

    Microsoft has maintained a tight lid about disclosing Office.Net's capabilities. The paucity of information flowing out of Redmond on this subject has in turn forced enterprises doing long-term planning for their desktop strategies to resort to something of a guessing game.

    But although Microsoft has not yet released many details, it is known that major changes are in the offing and that the company will deliver at least four "user experiences" as a part of its ballyhooed .Net architecture. These are expected to include MSN for consumers, bCentral for small businesses, Visual Studio.Net for developers and Office.Net for business users.

    Each of these "experiences" will package a combination of lower-level HailStorm services, and some may actually be shared between them. People will likely be asked to subscribe in combination packages, much as a cable company offers richer services at higher subscription rates.

    It's relatively easy to expect that the Office.Net services will include messaging, document viewing and display, and offline document storage with a higher-level package that might include document creation, annotation and collaboration.

    What's not so clear is why anyone would want to pay for this. If these services were targeted to you as an Office user, why would you pay for what you already have on your desktop? That's why we believe that Microsoft will try to rewrite the way in which customers work with a new service.

    A new way to work?
    The primary .Net user scenario will be based on access to individual information from a wide array of devices. I anticipate that one of the most common types of Web services to take advantage of multiple device access will be the personal context service (PCS). A PCS provides a way for people to store all the data they need to work with multiple devices in a single smart store.

    The information in this store includes all the data that you work with today. But in this new scheme, the PC won't be the central repository. Instead, the PCS manages your information from its own Web store. With your computer functioning as just one spoke on the PCS hub, your PDA or SmartPhone, your Home PC or your spouse's PC--all will be able to access that portion of your information that you decide to share.

    The selling point for PCS is expected to be the services that will be available to view and edit this data. For example, if you have a SmartPhone or wireless PDA, you could use your PCS and its applications to know where you are and track your location in conjunction with an appointment. What's more, it would also be able to prioritize the contacts you called the last time you visited this particular client.

    Think about the advantages of a smart server sorting through data to provide personal context. That information then gets reflected in all of your activities and is not dependent upon data in just a single device.

    Sales reps using low-bandwidth wireless could take advantage of an Extensible Markup Language-based PowerPoint file on their PCS unit to tap into their office PC and receive only the file's text. They would be able to edit that text without needing a full copy of PowerPoint on your phone. Somebody could then publish this information for their prospects using a PCS and talk them through a graphic PowerPoint presentation displayed by one of the PCS' viewing applications.

    The advantages are obvious, and for many, the convenience and capability of PCS are expected to be one of the first Web services that people will be prepared to pay for.

    How soon?
    Microsoft has kept its PCS plans close to its corporate vest. It will only say that the information agent to be coupled with its Microsoft.Net storage service is designed to maintain user history, context and preferences on the Web. Microsoft's initial PCS is expected to be based on two of the first .Net building-block HailStorm services: Identity (Passport) and Personalization, including synchronization. I anticipate availability of the first fully functional PCS Office.Net services in the first half of next year.

    Enterprise impact
    For big companies, the advent of the PCS will introduce a fresh set of challenges. How do they prevent most of their user data from ending up out on the Web? The smart move will be to provide PCS as enterprise service--speculatively available as back-end software from Microsoft or other vendors--within the firewall to ensure that organizational data is not distributed in multiple PCSes over the Web.

    For this to succeed the PCS will have to be attractive to users and provide a way for people to selectively exchange information with their own PCS. In addition, enterprises must be allowed to control the way information gets published to external users. The key to managing this PCS will include the ability to use the organization's directory service.

    The services likely to be provided with Office.Net are sufficiently vague that they should not influence Office upgrade decisions or provide a reason for enterprises to deviate from the current Gartner guidance of upgrading at most every other version of Office. Nevertheless, services like PCS are coming soon, and as enterprises need to think about how much of their users' information they're comfortable having out on the Web.

    They need to do to make sure they can manage it. One way to start is to find out how much is out there today.