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Microsoft bringing Web services home

The software maker, along with Hewlett-Packard and other companies, announces a new specification for linking consumer electronics devices to Windows.

Microsoft on Tuesday will bring Web services one step closer to home.

At its Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle, Microsoft will announce a specification, software development kit and partner support for new technology that links consumer electronics devices to Windows.

The announcements build on WS-Discovery, a separate specification introduced in February by Microsoft, Intel, Canon and BEA Systems at the Intel Developer Forum. This specification uses Web services to make it easier for devices and services to find one other on a network. For instance, the software will enable a personal digital assistant to locate available services such as printing or file sharing on a wireless network.

The concept is a departure from Web services' current role as a technology for linking business software within big companies and across the Internet and corporate networks. Microsoft and other companies see Web services playing a key role in making consumer technology easier to use.

Jim Allchin, Microsoft's vice president in charge of Windows development, is set to demonstrate Tuesday at WinHEC a printer from Hewlett-Packard that uses WS-Discovery to connect to a Windows-based PC, according to Microsoft. Both HP and Canon are expected to showcase prototype printers supporting WS-Discovery.

The Windows Network Connected Device Technology, the development kit that will be announced and distributed to conference attendees on Tuesday, includes tools and sample code to show hardware makers how to build Web services on devices, said Dave Mendlen, director of Web services technical marketing at Microsoft.

In addition, Microsoft, Intel, Lexmark International and Ricoh have co-authored a specification called the Device Profile for Web Services. It provides guidance for how software makers and hardware builders can connect devices using WS-Discovery and Web services.

One company not participating in the new specification is Sun Microsystems. Sun in the late 1990s proposed a similar connection technology called Jini that could be used to link devices using Java software. Mendlen said Microsoft has not spoken to Sun about the Web services for devices technology or the new specification. Sun representatives were not immediately available for comment. Sun and Microsoft last month announced a settlement of long-standing legal issues and said they planned to cooperate on future technologies.

Mendlen said the Device Profile for Web Services specification is being sent to the Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) Forum, an industry organization, for consideration as part of the UPnP 2.0 Device Architecture standard. The standard governs how devices such as printers, digital cameras, home stereo and computing products communicate.

The linking technology won't be in consumers' hands for at least a few years, however. "Longhorn," the version of Windows that will support connections using Web services, isn't expected to debut until at least 2006.

And the online directories needed to house information on devices don?t yet exist, Mendlen said. Microsoft?s plan calls for using a specification called Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI) to build online servers that would contain descriptive information on consumer electronics devices and other gear.

However, compared to the multi-year struggle to define and establish UPnP, the work required to establish Web services for devices should be relatively straightforward, said Jason Bloomberg, an analyst at ZapThink. "UPnP was really tough. It took them decades to get that right. One of the advantages of using Web services is that there are open standards. All you need to do is implement them and get everyone to play ball."

Some of the specifications that the new device technology builds upon, like WS-Eventing and WS-Discovery, are relatively new and still need to work their way through standards bodies, said Bloomberg. "But that doesn't mean that Microsoft and their partners can't start working with them now. That's a bit of a challenge but not insurmountable."

On interesting point, said Bloomberg, is that when Microsoft usually discusses interoperability, the conversation has been limited to Windows. But the Web services for devices technology can link devices to devices, meaning that Windows doesn't need to be part of the picture. That's a big switch for the software giant and a reflection that Microsoft understands that not every device will run Windows. "Good for them for at least talking about it. It's unusual and good for Microsoft and the industry to talk about interoperability where Windows is not always involved," said Bloomberg.