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Windows gets a splash of Indigo

If the new communications system lives up to Microsoft's ambitions, its impact will be great, say industry executives and analysts.

Microsoft wants Windows to play well with others. To do that, it's recoating the future in Indigo.

The software giant said last week that an early "preview" version of a new communications system being built into Windows, called Indigo, will be in software developers' hands in March.

To most people, the Indigo software will be invisible, simply a recast set of "plumbing" that only software programmers will interact with. But if Indigo lives up to Microsoft's ambitions, its impact will be great, according to industry executives and analysts.

News.context

What's new:
Microsoft will release an early version of its Indigo communications system, designed to simplify connecting Windows to other systems via Web services protocols.

Bottom line:
Indigo is a stepped-up attempt to tap into big-ticket integration projects--and Microsoft's oversight of Windows and its close ties to development tools gives it an edge.

More stories involving Indigo

If successful, the communications system, based on Web services protocols, will greatly improve the ability to move information between Windows and noncompatible applications--and crank up the competition in an already crowded field.

"It's been a while in coming, but when it eventually comes on market, Indigo will be an innovative and competitive product," said Mike Gilpin, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Because Indigo is being plugged right into Windows, Microsoft will have a well-integrated product, compared with competitors in the Java server software camp, Gilpin said.

Typically, communications software that integrates various systems runs on high-powered servers. Indigo will be much more pervasive: it will be available--for free--on server and desktop versions of Windows, including Windows XP, Windows Server 2003 and the forthcoming Longhorn edition of Windows.

"One of the common misconceptions is that these are server technologies. Fundamentally, the vision Microsoft has for distributing computing is not just forcing everything through a server or through the Web," said John Montgomery, director of marketing for Microsoft's product division. "You need the technology on the desktop as much as the server."

Microsoft also has the advantage of having legions of developers already trained on Visual Studio, its flagship development tool. Indigo introduces a programming model designed to greatly simplify the creation of distributed applications.

"At the developer level, it's still a nightmare choosing which communications transport to use," said Tim Huckaby, CEO of InterKnowlogy, a consulting firm and Microsoft partner. "Microsoft's vision is to unify the messaging bus and the average programmer doesn't have to worry about it--either inside or outside the firewall."

Other software companies building Windows applications will tap into the transport mechanism that Indigo provides as well, he added.

Call in the plumbers
Indigo represents a stepped-up attempt to compete against Java server software providers by supplying the industrial-strength infrastructure software.

In a recent mailing to its corporate customers, Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates reiterated the company's commitment to working well with different systems and touted the idea of "interoperability by design" using Web services protocols.

Rather than having Windows operate as a standalone fortress, common Web services communication protocols allow Microsoft .Net applications to share information without extensive and costly custom coding.

"This new model for how software talks to other software has been embraced across the industry," Gates wrote in his letter.

Once a backwater in software, integration technology is now in the sights of the industry's largest companies. Integration software is typically widely deployed in corporations and can lead to follow-on sales of software and services for vendors.

Like Microsoft, IBM, which dominated earlier generations of integration software, is beefing up its investment. Meanwhile, SAP, which made its fortune selling packaged applications, has boasted that its NetWeaver integration product is its most strategic product, years ahead of rivals Oracle/Peoplesoft.

Corporate customers use these so-called middleware packages to share data automatically between systems, such as a sales application and an accounting package. With better-linked systems, businesses can speed up how they operate and get more useful data from the systems they already have.

That's an important thing in many companies. A recent Merrill Lynch survey of CIOs found that software will garner the most spending this year and integration is consistently a top priority.

Microsoft already has an integration product, called BizTalk, which moves data between different systems. The company said Indigo does not replace BizTalk: Indigo provides some of the underlying data-transport services while BizTalk will provide additional services, such as translating between different document formats during a transaction.

A shift in message
The arrival of Indigo, which is expected to be released in beta later this year, also marks a technology shift in the industry toward XML document formats and the use of Web services for applications that demand high levels of security and reliability.

For customers, the move to a common transportation lane for company data means lower cost for integration projects, which can go into millions of dollars for large projects.

Financial-services company FirstCommand opted for integration software from Sonic Software, which sells standards-based integration software, after weighing offers from IBM, BEA, Oracle and Microsoft.

Rather than purchase software with a price tag measured in the millions, the company ended up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars, said John Quinones, the chief information officer and vice president of information at FirstCommand.

"It was significantly less expensive only because it was based on open standards," Quinones said. "It brought us to the point of doing this economically and reusing what we already had, versus having to rebuild all the interfaces between applications."

FirstCommand has built a services oriented architecture, a design technique that allows it to build new applications quicker by reusing common software components, or "services." Services are written to be modular and use standardized interfaces so that they can be combined with others easily.

Sonic's integration software, which sends messages between machines and provides other services, was needed as a starting point for a redesign of its entire infrastructure, Quinones said.

Microsoft's competitors are closely watching what Microsoft is doing with Indigo, and whether it will stick to the industry specifications as defined in standards bodies, or add proprietary extensions.

Robert LeBlanc, general manager of IBM's application and integration middleware division, downplayed the impact Indigo will have, because it will only run on Windows.

"Similar to SAP, they're solving one particular problem and one particular niche within the customer shop. Customer problems of heterogeneity and integration are much broader than a single platform," LeBlanc said.

Still, Microsoft is clearly committed to simplifying the process of building distributed applications, through which modular software components send data between the Microsoft and non-Microsoft world.

"It's a hot topic with corporate customers," Gilpin said. "And the participation of the platform players like IBM and Microsoft, as opposed to smaller (specialized) vendors, certainly makes it more competitive."