Portable computing to reach new extremes
By Matt Berger
(IDG) -- From the front seat of her sport-utility vehicle, a woman enters her password into an in-dash computer and downloads her collection of digital music files to the car stereo. A man in a grocery store gets an automatic call to his cell phone that a package he is expecting is about to be delivered to his home. A sales executive turns to her handheld device to close a deal, first checking whether inventory is available, then processing the order with the click of a few buttons.
These scenarios are part of a vision shared by many software developers, especially those attending Microsoft's annual Tech Ed developer conference in New Orleans last week. Now in its tenth year, the event is one of Microsoft's premiere events for teaching computer programmers techniques to turn emerging technologies into reality -- and those vignettes are examples of the reality Microsoft has in mind.
Microsoft's goal: to craft a common way of representing data so consumers and businesses can reach that data over the Internet from wherever they are, and using whatever device they choose. The effort to make accessing data and services as easy as turning on the television to see Dan Rather on the evening news is no longer a pie-in-the-sky sideshow. It was all Microsoft product managers and engineers cared to talk about, as they set aside discussions of traditional development techniques to pitch Microsoft's emerging Internet initiative, called .Net.
Microsoft begins with a philosophy that all data should be created equal. If computers don't differentiate between a digital music file and an e-mail file, users will be able to search for, manage, and access their information in many new ways. And Microsoft envisions storing that data securely in public or private networks.
If the pieces fall into place, this approach could open a number of opportunities for end users, as well as for companies providing services to them. The transformation won't come overnight, however. Although Microsoft has started embedding support for .Net into many of its products, the company says it could be seven years before the model of anytime, anywhere data is fully realized.
One possible outcome is that users could rent applications, such as Microsoft Office, which would be hosted on remote servers along with the users' personal data. Using a combination of wired and wireless networks, users would be able to access their data and the application needed to run it over the Internet from any device.
"Users just sign up and get their applications delivered to them," says Paul Flessner, senior vice president of Microsoft's enterprise software division. For example, a subscriber to Microsoft Office through an ISP could use the program regardless whether it was installed locally on the connected client device.
Benefits for consumers are that the service provider takes responsibility for upgrading the software and installing any security patches or bug fixes. And a user's preferences for a particular piece of software would be automatically reflected on any device used to access the application.
Battle in background
Microsoft's vision for what it loosely calls distributed computing rivals similar plans articulated by vendors including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and even Sun, maker of the Java programming language, perhaps the greatest challenger to .Net. Analysts say market dynamics will determine whose software will prevail, and many expect technologies from several vendors to coexist. In any event, it shouldn't be an issue to people who will end up subscribing to the services.
"This is going to be largely invisible to the end user," says Dana Gardner, research director with technology analyst firm Aberdeen Group, who was among nearly 8000 attendees at Tech Ed.
Invisibility is also the hope of Thomas Doeppner, a professor of computer science at Brown University, who attended Microsoft's conference.
"The end user doesn't care about what's happening in the background as long as it works," Doeppner says. "The end user cares that things are quick, secure, and private. ... The key to it is that it's got to be something that is really easy to use."
Making it easy to use could turn out to be one of the hardest parts. Microsoft is tackling that by standardizing on Extensible Markup Language, which it and other developers will use to describe all types of data, and create a common way to search for and manage files. Microsoft calls that model Unified Data and says it is necessary to give businesses and consumers fast access to content and services distributed across the Internet.
Over the next five to seven years, Microsoft will bake the technology behind Unified Data into its software products, including a future desktop version of Windows, officials say.
Although it may seem closer now than ever, building this networked world presents challenges and uncertainties.
For one, it's unclear yet how many consumers will be willing to pay extra to have their software and data always at their fingertips. As one possible indicator, the growth in sales of handheld computers, after a vigorous start, has slowed to a trickle in the past two years, according to market research companies.
Also, software companies are only beginning to agree on a standard way to build Web-based applications. Microsoft and IBM last week described their latest proposal for a standard of Web services security, but it does not yet have wide industry support. Privacy concerns among consumers are also hampering the development of some new services.
Microsoft's Flessner compares the effort to develop standard technologies to the history of the railroad industry, which started with competing railroad companies building trains that ran on different sized tracks. It wasn't until they all agreed on a standard track size that the industry enjoyed its greatest success.
"What we're trying to do with Web services is get the tracks to align," he says.
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July 12, 1999
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