During the 3 years since Microsoft announced its Next Generation Windows Services (NGWS) initiative, which the company later renamed .NET, success stories based on the technology have been few and far between. Until recently, I had heard little about compelling third-party solutions based on .NET, despite the fact that Microsoft's .NET development suite, Visual Studio .NET, had been available to programmers for almost a year. But that all changed with a Web service demo I received at COMDEX Fall 2002 last month.
The service is simple enough. Microsoft and document-printing superstore Kinko's have created a remote printing service that lets Microsoft Office users print documents to any of Kinko's 1175 stores nationwide. This service might not seem compelling—after all, Kinko's already offers a similar service that lets you send documents to the company for printing through email and the Web. But the new Web service—due in mid-2003—integrates directly into the Print dialog box in Office, offering users a seamless way to print remotely. Furthermore, the service integrates with the Microsoft MapPoint.NET service to let users locate the nearest Kinko's store. Finally, the service integrates with .NET Alerts to notify customers when their print jobs are accepted or completed.
To create the service, Microsoft and Kinko's used the Office XP Web Services Toolkit, an add-on for Visual Studio (VS) that helps developers extend Office in unique ways. Installing the service adds a new option, Kinko's Remote Printing, under File, Print, Printing Service. Clicking the option launches a unique Print dialog box. This dialog box provides a map from MapPoint.NET that displays the Kinko's locations nearest the user. You can also specify Kinko's locations in other cities to see maps of those locations, a useful option for business travelers. Imagine a scenario in which you are in Seattle but need hundreds or thousands of pages printed for a business trip in Miami, Florida. Instead of printing the documents in Seattle, you might use this service to send the print job to a Kinko's in Miami. Because Kinko's offers free delivery, the company will deliver your print job to your hotel. Nice.
The Kinko's Print dialog box also offers various options for binding, paper type, and other specifications, and lets you select the time and date you want the job completed. You can select options for how and when you want the service to notify you of specific events in the print job's lifetime. For example, you might want to receive a .NET Alert through Windows Messenger when the print job is accepted or completed.
Behind the scenes, the new Web service is all .NET. Kinko's uses Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) messages to carry XML-encoded versions of your documents to the Kinko's server system, which runs a heterogeneous mix of Windows .NET Server (Win.NET Server) 2003, Windows 2000 Server, and UNIX systems. Daniel Connors, senior vice president of Kinko's corporate strategy, told me that the .NET technologies underlying this service let Kinko's continue to use its existing infrastructure while rolling out Win.NET Server in areas in which the technology makes sense. "We're excited about this because it's in our corporate DNA to make technology accessible and available to people of all technical literacy levels," he said. "That's what we're about—making this technology available to folks and making it easy. You don't have to leave the application, and that's a huge convenience. For customers, convenience is the number-one factor when choosing a print or copy solution."
Another concern, of course, is price. But Connors told me that printing through the Office Web service would either cost the same as or be cheaper than today's in-store and Internet-based solutions. Cheaper? "Those jobs are cheaper to produce," he explained, "because the documents are sent digitally and we can print from the original." I wish he were in charge of ATM fees in this country.
Not surprisingly, Kinko's is using the new service as a competitive advantage over other print centers, which the company can do because its 1175 stores are centrally owned and operated. And in a recent conversation I had with Neil Charney, director of .NET Platform Strategy at Microsoft, he sounded excited to have a tangible Web service to show off.
"This is a great proof point for .NET and Web services, and it gives Kinko's a competitive advantage in the market," he told me. "We've been talking about Web services a lot, but we always leave it with a call to action about how companies can work with Web services. This is an example of a company—not a software company—that recognized the value of the technology, took its core service, and extended it to a Web service."
When the service ships in mid-2003, it will be available only to Office users, although Microsoft and Kinko's are looking at developing a more generic solution that would work with any Windows application in the future. "It's a nontrivial challenge, actually," Charney said, "with a lot going on in the background. We're taking a phased approach."