Microsoft envisions a future with computing as pervasive as air, and it sees itself as the oxygen.
The question is: Will the rest of the world buy what Microsoft plans to bottle and sell?
To breathe in the electronic environment of Microsofts .Net imaginings, consumers must first hand their private information over to Microsoft, and trust the Redmond company to store it securely and parcel it out judiciously.
Some think its an impossible goal for a company with already questionable records on trust, privacy and security. But its success is crucial to Microsoft, which is banking its future on its .Net initiative.
"This particular kind of service would require the most trusted vendor," said Rob Enderle, vice president and research leader at Giga Information Group, and one of the leading analysts on Microsoft. "Microsoft is not well-trusted, and recent security exposures have many concluding that it is not well-protected either."
Microsoft has long wrestled with hackers breaking into the companys sprawl of networks, undermining trust in its ability to safeguard private information. And the companys public image, which for years has struggled with Big Brother and Evil Empire comparisons by its many critics, was further tarnished during the epic antitrust trial between the company and the Department of Justice.
Now, with the recent unveiling of HailStorm — which will be a major component of the .Net vision — Microsoft is asking the public to fork over their most personal information, like address books, calendars and credit-card numbers. It promises to hide that information from the World Wide Web outside of Microsoft if the customer desires anonymity. At the same time, however, it is cautioning lawmakers on Capitol Hill against passing new laws that would guarantee Netizens the right to such privacy.
Critics charge that Microsoft specifically — as well as any one company in general — should not be trusted with such a deep pool of personal information. To date, Microsoft has repeatedly failed to stop hackers, and the richer, more vast reservoir of information envisioned by the company would represent a particularly choice target for digital crooks and online merchants desperate for consumer data. With its address books, calendars and purchase history, the database would also represent a particularly detailed data jackpot for law enforcement officials. And Microsofts failure to endorse even the idea of federal legislation, critics say, raises questions about the companys commitment to consumer privacy.
But Microsoft officials counter that the HailStorm architecture is revolutionary in that it for the first time gives users choices over how — or whether — their personal information will be used on the Web. The .Net project, they say, advances consumer privacy instead of eroding it, and it does a better job of protecting consumers than any law.
"We are assuring people that there is a basis for controlled consent," he added. "A very major information campaign has to be mounted."
But analysts and privacy advocates arent so sure.
"Public relations alone wont do it," said Chris LeTocq, research director at Gartner Group. "They have to be able to say, you know, Here are these third parties that are going to audit us, here are concrete offerings which are going to somehow convince people we are somebody to be trusted. Given the negative publicity they have gotten from the Department of Justice suit, they have a long way to go."
The .Net initiative, LeTocq said, represents Microsofts attempt to "recast the Net as they wish it had been written in the first place. From Microsofts perspective, the Net is far too much of an egalitarian structure for them to make money. What you are seeing here is Microsoft rewriting the Net to look like Windows."
Among other things, for .Net to work, Microsoft will have to be willing to work closely and openly with the bulk of the online commercial world.
But Microsoft "does not have a history of egalitarian partnering," said Frank Prince, senior analyst in e-business infrastructure at Forrester Research. "People can apply to Microsoft a joke that they used to apply to IBM: IBM + X = IBM."