Since revealing its plans for Hailstorm, the first phase of a strategy shift from shrink-wrapped software to .NET-based services, Microsoft has found itself at the center of a steadily brewing controversy. Software developers who have historically backed Microsoft platforms have generally rallied around the .NET strategy, but the company has plenty of critics who aren't that excited by the notion of an Internet dominated by Microsoft technology. The problem isn't so much the technology, however, but the company itself. With its reputation falling steadily since the frenzied days of the Windows 95 launch, Microsoft just doesn't have a positive image in many circles. And with many feeling that the company will escape relatively unscathed from its antitrust problems, there's a growing unease that Microsoft will use its market dominance to ensure itself a similar dominant position in the future.

Certainly, Microsoft is partly to blame. As it rose in power, the company did nothing to curb its competitive practices, which were acceptable for a small player, but arguably illegal for a company of its stature. For example, Microsoft announced nonexistent products solely to offset press releases from companies announcing actual products. For a company with no market share, such a tactic would hardly cause a ripple. But when Microsoft announces products—real or imagined—entire businesses can collapse. The history of the high-tech marketplace is littered with the carcasses of companies that had the bad luck to seize upon an idea that Microsoft later decided was important. Some of these companies, certainly, made mistakes of their own, and some were genuinely out-hustled by the Redmond giant. But some suffered fates that were questionable at best.

And then there are the conspiracy stories. Microsoft has reportedly grabbed user and PC information during certain product registrations, even when users specifically chose not to send such information. Microsoft updated its Product Activation feature, which performed well during tests with Office 2000 in select markets, and melded it into next-generation products such as Windows XP and Office XP. The goal is to prevent piracy, according to the company. But users are freaking out over the feature for a variety of reasons. In Windows XP, Windows Product Activation (WPA) ensures that you can install each copy of the OS on just one PC. For users accustomed to installing Windows on two or more PCs in their own home, this represents a serious limitation, despite the fact that the Windows license has legally forbidden this practice for a long time. For people concerned that Microsoft is mounting a Big Brother-like campaign to spy on users, WPA looks like the opening salvo in a battle for control of their PCs.

Many of these complaints are, of course, bogus. And for those complaints that aren't, there are often innocent explanations. But fairly or not, Microsoft's products are seen as insecure and unsafe. Given this, and considering the company's history of questionable business tactics and illicit behavior toward its users, do we trust Microsoft? Do we trust it to build the infrastructure for the future?

A lot of rhetoric has circulated about this topic in the weeks since Microsoft's Hailstorm announcement in late March. When Microsoft announced its .NET strategy last summer, many analysts laughed at what they deemed yet another vaporware campaign from Redmond. But Hailstorm proves that .NET is not only real, but that it's happening. So the laughter has subsided, and in its place conspiratorial questions about the company's motives have arisen. And not surprisingly, Microsoft competitors such as AOL and Sun have asked the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate Hailstorm to determine whether it constitutes an abuse of Microsoft's market power. Microsoft has finally followed through on a product thought to be vaporware, and it might just land the company in court again.

Is this something we need to worry about? Do you trust Microsoft to deliver on the security, stability, and availability that the next-generation Internet is going to require? Click "Post a comment" to let me know what you think.