Digital persona non grata

You’re visiting MySite. Reading MyEditorial. Taking in MyOpinions. I am under no illusions, however, that any of it is “”mine.””

Of course, the “”my”” is supposed to apply to you, the reader, not to the creator of the content. This is in theory one of the great promises of the Web, whereby

information is sorted (let’s not say customized; we’re really talking about carving things into niches here) and delivered to users based on a pre-selected preferences. Though it is looking to take it well beyond content delivery to all manner of online transactions, this “”digital persona”” approach is the linchpin behind Microsoft’s Web services strategy.

According to a story in the New York Times, however, the software giant has backed off from a highly anticipated project code-named HailStorm, which would include an electronic wallet along with e-mail and calendar information of its members. Quoting a variety of unnamed sources, the story says businesses as well as customers were put off by the idea of Microsoft acting as Internet gatekeeper. The story is not entirely accurate. The piece it discusses, MyServices, is only one element of HailStorm, which also includes its PassPort sign-on service to access a number of Web sites. Though it has never officially been announced, MSN Messenger and Hotmail would likely be incorporated into HailStorm as well.

If the news is true, though, the failure of MyServices casts a dark shadow (a StormCloud?) over the entire .Net strategy, not to mention the Web services market overall. HailStorm and .Net are intended to prove that Microsoft finally “”gets”” the Internet. In a public appearance in Toronto last year, Microsoft president Steve Ballmer said it was “”betting the business”” on this strategy. Instead, its hard-headed approach demonstrates it has a long way to go before it understands how much customers — and other large companies — are prepared to hand over control of their online destinies.

Even if everyone had been onboard with HailStorm, the hardware difficulties would have been troubling enough. Last summer, for example, a partial outage of MSN Messenger lasted more than seven days, at which point the company had to restart the network of servers that handle messaging traffic. This is not something the Microsofts of the world have to do every day. Affecting an estimated 10 million people, the whole incident turned into an comedy of errors in which Microsoft’s efforts to fix the problem only seemed to make the problem worse. If it couldn’t keep Messenger up and running, how would Microsoft possibly handle the millions who it would be asking to sign up for HailStorm offerings like MyServices?

Security issues have dogged other parts of HailStorm, like PassPort, since it was launched. It was enough to cause Sun, Bell Canada and many other firms to plan their own version, the so-called Liberty Alliance. Although there is something childish about the “”My”” branding at work in these projects, most consumers seem to fall for it, believing they are somehow “”special”” because they get make a choice. It can be jarring if you end up logging on to someone else’s persona by mistake. I remember when one of the writers who works with me, Neil, sat down at his new PC and logged onto a Yahoo! page that opened up with a cheerful “”Good morning, Joshua!”” intended for his predecessor. Microsoft’s MyServices would likely have involved us in a number of mistaken identity cases.

The Times story suggests Microsoft will end up offering MyServices as a package to corporations, but this would be a major shift from its plan for a pay-as-you-go app. Microsoft doesn’t give up easily, and it will no doubt bring out the same features in another form. If nothing else, maybe it will have learned that if you threaten a HailStorm, people are bound to dive for cover.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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