Stormy Weather

Microsoft targets personal data for hailstorm services

Microsoft wants you. All of you.

The company synonymous with personal computing software will soon try to convince millions of users that it should be the designated gatekeeper for all their online data.

Last week, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates introduced a key piece of his .Net platform, a "user-centric" set of technologies codenamed HailStorm, that will use eXtensible Markup Language (XML) to provide some basic Web services — MyProfile, MyAddress, MyWallet, MyCalendar and MyContacts, among them — for storing personal data.

But for Microsofts integrated plan to happen, the company needs to host all HailStorm data, and it needs to provide users with a way to manage what data gets shared with whom and when, including shopping, browsing and notification preferences.

The advantage of such services, said Gates, is that users will only have to enter their data once; the .Net infrastructure makes it possible for XML-based services to share and link the data across applications, operating systems and devices.

The bigger question is whether online users will buy into an online world in which Microsoft touches all the information exchanged. Bob Muglia, group vice president of the .Net Services Group at Microsoft, tried to defuse any privacy and security concerns by saying that Microsoft would not "mine, sell, target or publish HailStorm data."

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said he is taking a wait-and-see approach to Microsofts plan, but added that disclosing a privacy policy is not the same as giving users complete control over their data.

The key to it all is Microsoft Passport, the personal-profile manager and wallet that currently gives users entry to Hotmail, Microsofts free e-mail service. Gates said the goal is to get "everyone who uses the Internet to have one of these Passports."

The company will start by trying to convince the 100 million "active" users of Passport to buy into its subscription services; Microsoft predicted HailStorm will reach the market in mid-2002.

"The trick will be to capitalize on that user base," said financial analyst Richard Sherlund, Microsoft watcher at The Goldman Sachs Group. He thinks business users will want Web services that remove the pain involved today in synchronizing data among PCs and other devices.

Gates said the future will see users paying a subscription fee to Microsoft and other developers for providing a new generation of Web-based services — such as a notification system that alerts you, via e-mail or smart cell phone, if your flight is delayed or if theres an unusual charge on your credit card.

Yet Muglia said the company has much work to do to make its .Net vision a reality, not the least of which is convincing both users and developers that the company is capable of delivering the "operational excellence" needed to guarantee the security and performance of such a vast information repository.

Such operational excellence, Muglia acknowledged, is "not something Microsoft has always had in the core of our genes."