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Microsoft Web plan takes aim at Google

Mirroring efforts at Google, Yahoo and elsewhere, software maker to offer developers tools to build online applications.

Microsoft will take aim at rival Google next week with a new Web development plan.

The software company plans to open access to its MSN and other public Web sites to let developers assemble new applications that build on those sites--a technique used successfully at Google and at other Web companies to promote their properties.

Microsoft will detail its "Web platform" strategy at its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles next week, company executives told CNET News.com. It intends to publish the application programming interfaces, or APIs, to some of its public Web sites, including MSN Search, and deliver better tools to write those applications.

The goal: to embrace the emerging model, often called Web 2.0 or the programmable Web, where new applications are built using pieces of existing, public Web sites. Rather than simply providing access to Web pages, these companies treat their Web sites as a development platform, much like an operating system. For example, a third-party developer could write an application, or "mash-up," that pulls location information from a person's blog and plots it on a map using Google Maps or a similar service.

But Microsoft has to walk a fine line, analysts said, by recognizing the popularity of new Web technologies while still encouraging the use of its cash cow Windows and Office products.

The move to lure more developers to MSN expands the competitive battleground between the software giant and Google, a company it is now competing with for developer mindshare. A Google representative wasn't immediately available to comment. Acrimony between the two companies has come to light in recent days, as they spar in court over former Microsoft executive Kai-Fu Lee, who was hired by Google.

Microsoft's online rivals, notably Google and Yahoo, already provide the hooks that let third-party Web developers write applications that tap into their Web services, such as search and mapping. Because these Web applications rely on a Web browser, they can, in theory, run on any operating system.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has always drawn third-party developers to Windows. But even with its commitment to Windows, analysts said, Microsoft needs to more fully address the growing popularity of online Web development. Having a healthy ecosystem of third-party add-on products helps drive traffic to Web properties.

"There are some real competitive issues going on, and (Microsoft) needs to respond, not just with products and offerings for consumers but also (with) compelling products and APIs for developers," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Jupitermedia. "There's a recognition that people are embracing the Web as a platform, and they (Microsoft) want to be there as well."

Microsoft has already given developers access to some of its Web sites. MapPoint, for example, has had a Web services interface for a few years. But the company is ramping up efforts to make its Web sites programmable and customizable by end users, mirroring the strategies at Google, Yahoo, Amazon.com, eBay and a growing number of Web sites.

Opening up the Web store
At the developers conference next week, Microsoft plans to publish the API to its MSN Search service, which can be used by developers through the Simple Object Access Protocol, or SOAP. The noncommercial license will let people produce 10,000 search results per day per Internet address, said Seth Demsey, group program manager for MSN Search. Microsoft will release an API for its desktop search as well.

Also next week, the company will announce a free commercial license to use a JavaScript "control" to display data from its Virtual Earth mapping service. The MSN Messenger group, meanwhile, will allow developers to write Windows applications that make use of the "Activity" window. This would allow a customer service representative, for example, to display customer information in a chat session.

Microsoft is encouraging developers to write applications for its Web properties because more and more applications are being delivered online rather than run on a single desktop PC, company executives said.

"We think we need to evolve the platform and development story to keep pace with developers who want to build these experiences that reach across the Internet," said Adam Sohn, a spokesman for Microsoft's MSN division. "The more applications, the more value to the user and the more people gravitate to our platform."

While Microsoft is opening up access to well-established MSN sites next week, it is also giving a sneak peek of some tools it hopes will ease online Web application development.

Next Thursday, Microsoft executives will discuss a developer program for Start.com, an MSN incubator Web site that consolidates information from RSS feeds and other Web sites onto a single customizable page.

Although the company has been quiet about the details, the idea is to encourage Web programmers to build add-ons to Start.com, according to employee blogs.

At the PDC next week, the company is also expected to release a beta test version of Atlas, a tool meant to ease creation of Web applications using the technique known as AJAX, which relies on modern standards to make Web pages more interactive.

The Atlas toolkit is expected to eventually include software called the MSN Framework, software for building JavaScript applications that run on top of MSN Web properties, including the forthcoming version of Hotmail and the MSN Spaces blog and photo-sharing service. The common tooling will make it easier for Microsoft engineers to add new features to their Web sites, according to Microsoft employees.

"The Framework provides us with a client-side component model, network stacks, Firefox compatibility, and OO (object-oriented) language enhancements that allows us to 'engineer' rather than ad-hoc script the client," Scott Isaacs, an architect for MSN Web experience, said in a recent blog posting.

Much of the MSN-specific tooling will be incorporated in Microsoft's Atlas, Isaacs said. Developed by the ASP.Net team, the Atlas Project is an add-on to Microsoft flagship development tool Visual Studio to simplify the job of writing interactive Web applications using AJAX standards.

Balancing Web and Windows platforms
Promoting AJAX-style development of online applications poses something of a conflict for Microsoft, said Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft.

On one hand, Microsoft is appealing to the trend of making Web applications that run entirely in the browser across all operating systems. But at the same time, it continues to espouse so-called thick clients, or what Microsoft calls "smart clients," where the application front end fully exploits the features of Windows and Office on a PC. In its own Dynamics-branded business applications, announced Wednesday, integration with Office is a top priority, for instance.

"What kind of worries them a little with the AJAX thin-client model is, if they ignore it and offer nothing, are they driving people to (the open-source development combination) LAMP?" Cherry said.

"There's an ongoing debate inside the company over what's the right level to support these things while still being aware that the company is in the operating-system business," he said.

Microsoft's Sohn said the company will continue to encourage the use of both the MSN platform and its Windows/Office combination. With the MSN tooling, many Windows-based clients can now more easily grab data from public Web sites, he noted.

"We don't see any conflict here," he said. "And we know how to compete in the platform business."