You have to give Microsoft at least a little credit for constantly bowing to pressure from its customers. After spending a year pushing HailStorm—which the company eventually renamed Microsoft .NET My Services—Microsoft announced last week that it would fold the fledgling services, which were to form the basis for its consumer .NET initiative, into a new product that probably won't see the light of day until the middle of 2003 at the earliest. The announcement had news agencies proclaiming the death of HailStorm and questioning the viability of .NET in general. The truth, as always, is a little more complicated.
As originally envisioned, .NET My Services was to provide core .NET services such as email, calendaring, alerts, and the eWallet to users. This information was to have been stored on secure Microsoft servers that were accessible to any companies that .NET My Services users designated. The goal was laudable: Let users store their personal information centrally and control access to the information, and you make it easier for e-commerce sites and other online services to interact with customers. Contrast that goal with today's reality, in which every e-commerce site or service (e.g., Amazon.com, eBay) must provide the infrastructure for storing and securing customer information. From the user's standpoint, having to recreate accounts with individual online merchants and services is needlessly complex because most of the information necessary to create an account—name, address, phone number, credit card number—is identical across sites. If .NET My Services had taken off, users would have had to maintain only one user account and, what is perhaps more crucial, one logon.
What Microsoft didn't count on was a complete and utter lack of support from the companies that would have provided services online to .NET My Services users. During the past year, Microsoft approached companies such as American Express, and although some of these companies declared support for .NET My Services when the project was originally announced, all had concerns about Microsoft servers acting as middlemen between them and their customers. Given those concerns, Microsoft's failure to garner support for .NET My Services shouldn't be surprising. Any company, whether large or small, must spend enormous amounts of time and effort to attract and keep loyal customers. Why would any business want to cede control of its customers' critical information to another business? As it turns out, no company wants to do so: Not one company elected to support .NET My Services. All of Microsoft's partners and potential partners simply said no.
So Microsoft gave up, as the company did when criticism of the .NET Passport system caused it to rethink the notion that it had to control the servers that hold user data. This time around, rethinking its previous notions will require Microsoft to create a major architectural change, because .NET My Services is officially dead. In its place, Microsoft will release a packaged version of the .NET My Services technologies—probably in the form of a new .NET Enterprise Server (Win.NET Enterprise Server—formerly Windows 2000 Advanced Server) product—that corporations can buy as they do other server products. The new product will let these companies build and host .NET My Services-based services locally and control their own user information. Interestingly, Microsoft will use this product with its MSN online properties, so the product eventually will be available online to .NET Passport customers as a natural extension, of sorts, to .NET Passport and Hotmail.
This new strategy brings up many questions, of course. Will .NET My Services servers interoperate, allowing users to authenticate at different locations and access services with a single logon? And how will the death of .NET My Services retard the growth of the .NET initiative, which was relying on a late 2002 .NET My Services rollout to drive momentum? I'll be investigating these and other concerns about the sudden and unexpected change in plans for .NET My Services. If you have any questions about this change, please let me know.