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Microsoft revs up alerts service

The company will announce next week a new Internet service, tied to its .Net strategy, that will let eBay and other Web sites contact and send messages to customers.

    Microsoft will announce next week a new business Internet service, tied to its .Net strategy, that will allow eBay and other Web sites to contact and send messages to customers via PCs, cell phones and other handheld devices.

    Microsoft plans to say that it has signed 20 companies to a new Web-based service, called .Net Alerts, according to sources close to the company. The service will notify subscribers of everything from updated sports scores to the shipping status of goods they've bought online. In the case of eBay, the online auction site can send buyers messages about the status of items they've bid on.

    The new service is an element in Microsoft's forthcoming package of Web-based services, called .Net My Services. The company next year plans to offer content, shopping, banking, entertainment and other Internet services through a variety of devices, all linked to Microsoft's Passport authentication service, which houses a host of Web surfer information. It's part of the company's larger .Net strategy for shifting computing tasks online.

    The alerts service will be the first .Net service that a computer user will be able to see and use.

    While many of the .Net My Services features are aimed at consumers, .Net Alerts is expected to be the first of many Web services aimed at businesses, sources said.

    "Microsoft's aim is to be in as many places and touch as many people's lives as they can," Forrester Research analyst Kyle Johnson said.

    A Microsoft representative declined to comment.

    The 20 participating companies will either announce plans to implement the service or are currently adding the new .Net service to their sites. News of the technology has been hinted at for some time as part of Microsoft's .Net thrust and associated alliances with the likes of eBay. The alerts have also been demonstrated in conjunction with previews of the Windows XP operating system.

    Messages using the new software system can be sent a variety of ways, including e-mail and instant messaging, and even through audio alerts, according to sources. Microsoft plans to make .Net Alerts available on the forthcoming Windows XP operating system and its MSN online service, as well as MSN Messenger. The service will be controlled by customers so they can decide the type of information they receive and how alerts are sent, sources said.

    More than 20 companies are participating in Microsoft's preview program for .Net Alerts, including antivirus software maker McAfee and MSN properties such as MSN Calendar, MSN Music and MSN Carpoint, according to sources. As part of the preview program, Microsoft by year's end will offer a software development kit that will allow businesses to develop .Net Alerts services, sources said.

    McAfee, for example, will be able to instantly warn its customers of a new computer virus and have a link where people can go to download a new security patch.

    Analysts say the .Net Alert service is Microsoft's attempt to reach more customers with its Passport service. Rival Sun Microsystems recently announced its own strategy, with dozens of partners including Nokia and United Airlines, to create a Passport-like service for online authentication.

    Under Microsoft's plan, businesses--which potentially include Microsoft rivals--will adopt Passport as their login system for consumer and business-to-business transactions online. Microsoft is also allowing third parties, such as telecommunications service providers, to register Passport members or create trusted links between proprietary networks and a Passport-centric commerce site. Microsoft hopes to create a large federation of Passport-powered Web sites to form a huge marketplace.

    "It is a grab for additional dominance," said Giga Information Group analyst Mike Gilpin.

    Analysts say other companies already offer services similar to .Net Alerts. Yahoo's instant messaging software, for example, offers updated stock price information, Gilpin said. E-business software maker Tibco offers similar notification services inside private corporate networks, he added.

    In recent Windows XP demonstrations, Microsoft representatives showed how .Net Alerts can be received in the new operating system. A little banner rises up out of the right end of the OS's taskbar, Gilpin said.

    Marge Breya, vice president of Sun's Sun One Web services initiative, said .Net Alerts represents Microsoft's realization that computing is moving away from PCs onto a wider range of devices. "Microsoft is trying to take the Net down to the person. It's a vision we've had for many years," Breya said.

    iPlanet, a partnership between Sun and AOL Time Warner, is creating e-business software that will allow businesses to create similar online notification services for their customers, Breya added. The company plans to announce further details of its Web services strategy within the next month, she said.