Microsoft primps messaging for businesses

The company is aiming functions long held as the domain of consumers toward businesses. The catch: For now, many features will be available only for use with Windows XP.

Michael Kanellos
Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
5 min read
LAS VEGAS--Microsoft is betting businesses are quickly developing a taste for instant messaging and digital media functions, long held as the domain of consumers.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates alluded to the new features in his Comdex keynote speech Sunday night when he revealed that the company will release Windows .Net Server Beta 3 later this month.

But there is a catch: For now, at least, many of the most compelling features will be available only when .Net Server is used with the Windows XP operating system.

The connection created between the desktop and the server clarifies why many apparently consumer-oriented features are found in both Windows XP versions--Home and the business-oriented Professional. Instant messaging, videoconferencing, chat and the streaming content, for example, would appear to appeal more to consumers than to businesses. But Microsoft clearly sees big potential for these technologies in the corporate market.

"Corporations are interested in getting instant messaging on a more secure footing," said Dwight Krossa, Microsoft's director of emerging business product marketing. He sees this and other interactive communications, such as videoconferencing, gaining a foothold in some unexpected markets, including among Wall Street brokers.

The new beta, or test version--which also firms up support for common Web development protocols such as Extensible Markup Language (XML), Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) and Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI)--offers new tools for delivering videoconferencing and other types of communication.

"The release of the new beta is a little bit more than people expected," said Gartner analyst David Smith. "For early adopters, early deployers of .Net applications, there's enough there for them to get excited about. For the advanced .Net developer this is a big deal."

Microsoft is not alone in pitching these communications features to businesses. Last month, arch rival Sun Microsystems announced plans to develop a new instant messaging product called iPlanet Instant Collaboration Pack that aims at corporate customers.

Krossa credited file-swapping service Napster for reinvigorating developer interest in interactive communications, but with better security than is seen in many consumer services. He used Microsoft's Web-based Hotmail service as one example. Though the e-mail service is popular among Microsoft employees, it is "not secure and (is) easily sniffable," he said.

He noted that instant messaging, chat and videoconferencing are gaining popularity among Wall Street brokers, but that current technologies don't meet recording and security standards established by regulators.

"The problem is it's not secure, not encrypted, and it's not audited," Krossa said of current technologies. "Those are three things you're supposed to have."

Windows matters
But to deliver those services through Windows .Net Server Beta 3, software developers will have to lean heavily on existing Microsoft products, particularly Windows XP. While the beta offers basic instant messaging, robust technology is required, particularly XP's Windows Messenger.

"You would want to have a client that has the instant messaging capabilities," said Bob O'Brien, Windows .Net group product manager at Microsoft. "XP does in fact have that. Anybody building a client that would have instant messaging capabilities that would want to tie into the back end in order to facilitate that could do so, but I'm not aware of any other client that would do so today."

The same thing goes for many of .Net Server's videoconferencing and interactive media features, which for now "work best with Windows XP," O'Brien said.

Videoconferencing typically has been a cumbersome affair, with the parties either needing to know the others' Internet Protocol (IP) addresses or to connect through an Internet Locator Service (ILS) server. But using Windows Messenger on the front end and .Net Server on the back end, Microsoft hopes to simplify that process.

"People want video," O'Brien said. "They've wanted it for 10 years. We're really on the cusp of people really being able to use it."

Microsoft envisions software developers building applications on top of both .Net Server and Windows Messenger for any type of online communication that requires the ability to identify the other person through an authentication system such as Microsoft's Passport along with instant messaging.

To this end, Microsoft increased its support for Session Initiation Protocol, or SIP, which is a standard for delivering real-time communications. The company also included in the server beta "a set of APIs (application programming interfaces) that would help developers build those services and applications into their applications," O'Brien said. "The call center application is the most classic we have seen."

Another new feature supported in the beta involves online collaboration, or what Microsoft refers to as Team Services. The product allows companies to build secure online, interactive communities for working collaboratively on projects.

The feature "integrates very well with Office," said Krossa, who noted that the productivity suite is not required to use Team Services.

Battling security breaches
One of Microsoft's primary goals is to deliver these kinds of interactive features in a secure manner. But to get there, the company faces some hurdles, particularly after recent problems with its Internet Information Server (IIS) product. The software giant attempted to address some of these issues during last week's Trusted Computing Conference.

In October, Microsoft launched the Strategic Technology Protection Program to address ongoing IIS security breaches via the recent worm attacks Nimda and Code Red.

IIS 6, which is part of .Net Server, relies on a "new process model that allows you to do some process isolation." O'Brien said. The feature is crucial to detecting "when a process appears to be going out of bounds--in that case (terminating) a process before it takes down your application."

Microsoft also is more closely reviewing server development, relying on tools "introduced late in the game on Windows 2000 that continue to be enhanced by Microsoft research," O'Brien said.

Four versions of Windows .Net Server eventually will be available. The newest family member, Windows .Net Web Server, will cater to front-end Web serving and hosting. Windows Standard Server is expected to appeal to small businesses or larger companies looking for departmental file-and-print services.

Windows Enterprise Server is designed for large businesses that also require some e-commerce services. The high-end Windows .Net Datacenter Server is designed for companies running large data farms and server clusters. The Enterprise and Datacenter servers will be available in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions.

Krossa would not give a more specific release date than the "first half of next year." But .Net Server Beta 3 could be available as early as later this week.

News.com's Joe Wilcox reported from Washington, D.C., and Michael Kanellos reported from Las Vegas.