As the bulk of business and personal computing moves even further onto the Internet, identifying the next key technological battlefront is more important than ever for America Online, Microsoft, and a cast of smaller hopefuls seeking to determine what course the Web takes.
The war for the Web won't be decided by a single battle, but through a series of skirmishes on key fronts. The winner will in all likelihood control what the general public sees and does on the Web.
Experts agree that, like HTML and HTTP before it, messaging standards have the potential to be hugely important and could pave the way for an entire array of new services. But perhaps more than anything else, the instant messaging controversy points out just how unpredictable the fight for control of Internet technologies will be.
As is always the case, predicting what will be the next hot technology is a gamble. Few of the analysts, pundits, experts, and marketing managers contacted for this story would have wagered that instant messaging would become a point of contention between AOL and Microsoft.
Yet many pointed out possible new grounds where the giants could fight for control over software and new standards. Those include: business-to-business cross-platform data exchange via Extensible Markup Language (XML); e-commerce and "digital wallets"; wide-scale directories to allow single Net sign-on; digital streaming and real-time video; and voice technology, with a focus on digital phone calls and voice-activated Web browsers.
"We're always looking for new modes to communicate," said Paul Hagan, an analyst with Forrester Research. "In that sense, it's not surprising that instant messaging has taken off. And there will be other technologies rising in importance, like voice and video. The phone works best for voice right now, and on the Internet the bandwidth isn't there for video. But it's coming," he said.
Microsoft may have the immediate advantage in many of these coming technologies, if only because it's played this game before. Long before there was an AOL, the software giant duked it out for control of the PC desktop vs. IBM, Novell, and other players.
Moreover, Microsoft's vast resources let it invest research and development in virtually any area. Microsoft, unlike most of its competitors, can easily change direction, shift resources, or buy companies at will--especially when it's fallen behind in technology market such as instant messaging.
"When Microsoft is behind, it will use everything including the bogey of something non-standard compliant," said Ramanathan Guha, chief technology officer at Epinions, an e-commerce start-up, and a former principal engineer at Netscape Communications.
Microsoft is investing heavily to support XML, and has wrapped itself in the flag of standards compliance to differentiate itself from competitors. While a version 1.0 of the XML specification has been set, a series of related specifications for defining the structure, content, and semantics of XML documents are still being hammered out. Microsoft is heavily involved in those discussions.
XML is touted as an industry-neutral language that has the potential to revolutionize the exchange of information between businesses, in the same way that HTML changed user interfaces. Many uses for the technology have already been proposed, from linking back-end purchasing systems to delivering sound and other data across the Web.
A battle on many fronts
Standardized way to place calls over the Net would be huge revenue generator, as Internet protocol-based telephony heats up. Microsoft plans to add voice capabilities to its Office software.
Streaming and real-time video "chat" markets gain popularity as broadband Net services increase. Microsoft's NetMeeting, however, holds second spot to RealNetworks, so far.
Extensible Markup Language is the lingua franca of e-commerce, experts say. Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, and others work on defining new products and standards.
The strongest player in this space will control technology for electronic payments. Some banks, AOL, and Microsoft recently announced a standards effort.
This key technology will define a single sign-on protocol. Companies like Novell, Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, and others are vying for a market lead.
Just this week, the W3C released a second working draft of Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language, also known as "SMIL Boston." Microsoft objected to the first draft, and proposed an alternative. SMIL (pronounced "smile") Boston lets Web authors coordinate sound, text, and other multimedia elements using languages based on XML rather than programming code.
While taking part in standards efforts, Microsoft has simultaneously raised the importance of XML internally as it begins to take hold in the industry and its competitors formulate plans. The company has set-up BizTalk, an XML framework for building systems and plans to release a new software server, called the BizTalk Server, that almost certainly will become a part of its BackOffice family. And XML is now a core technology being supported by virtually all Microsoft product teams.
Digging in the e-wallet
Analysts said electronic wallet technology should catch on as the number of e-commerce transactions mushrooms. Wallet software contains credit card numbers, e-cash, or other forms of payment, as well as digital certificates that vouch for the identity of a user. Microsoft is heavily involved in the development of e-wallet technology.
The idea behind wallet technology is to give merchants an easy way to accept credit card payments from consumers without requiring them to re-enter credit card numbers, expiration dates, and other information as part of each transaction.
In June, a number of industry heavyweights--including both Microsoft and AOL--and a number of credit card firms, online stores, and PC makers announced a strategy to create a standard for electronic wallets. The companies also formed a consortium to define an easy way to define e-wallets, called the Electronic Commerce Modeling Language.
While the lineup of players is impressive, earlier efforts to define wallet software have failed, and consumers don't yet trust sensitive data to wallet software. Yet a Jupiter Communications report issued earlier this year showed that 27 percent of online shoppers change their minds about a purchase when they are faced with a complicated credit card form.
A related technology is directory software that can link Web users to various e-commerce sites via a single log-on. A directory serves as a central database for information concerning users, systems, and network devices. The software works similar to a "yellow pages" directory, allowing an administrator to access and manipulate a sophisticated array of network data.
Since a directory could become the centerpiece for the administration of network information, the niche is attracting the interest of a wide range of companies. Firms like Microsoft, Novell, Oracle, and IBM, as well as networking giant Cisco Systems, FastLane Technologies, Oblix, and Mission Critical Software could set the direction of technology for years to come.
From Microsoft's perspective, the impending release of Windows 2000 and the company's new Active Directory software, along with interoperability directory technology recently acquired from Zoomit, makes the company's software more palatable for higher-end computing tasks.
Coincidentally, AOL acquired an array of directory technology through its acquisition of Netscape. But the directory software is being managed by Sun Microsystems as part of the Sun-Netscape alliance.
Loud and clear
Microsoft is expected to integrate voice technology into its Office desktop application suite, giving it an instant advantage over most competitors given Office's huge installed base.
Video seems to be the dark horse among prognosticators to become a driving force in Net technology. Microsoft has bought a variety of video streaming companies and technologies but still lags behind market leader RealNetworks. And Apple is making a renewed bid for market dominance with its QuickTime technology. But a solid video technology strategy could become hugely important as bandwidth increases and broadband takes hold.
Even with the recent ruckus over instant messaging, there's no guarantee it will mature into a dominant Web technology, analysts caution. Plenty of well-hyped, well-financed technologies have failed. The most notable example may be so-called "push" technology envisioned as a way to send advertisements and other info directly to users' Web browsers.
Even Microsoft, which built push features into its Internet Explorer Web browser, was fooled--that time anyway.
News.com's Ben Heskett contributed to this report.
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