In my last .NET UPDATE column, I discussed Microsoft's Hailstorm initiative, the company's first wave of .NET services. Hailstorm will enter beta soon, and that beta will be publicly available later this year. This week, I'd like to expand on what we know about Hailstorm by looking at the security concerns, the issues for developers, and the roadmap for this technology.

One obvious concern about .NET, and the wider topic of interconnected computer systems in the global Internet, is security. When it comes to security, Microsoft has had its troubles, although the press has largely exaggerated the company's tarnished reputation. As the maker of the world's most popular platforms, it's no wonder that Microsoft and its products are under constant attack. Nevertheless, over time, we've seen Microsoft add needed security capabilities to its products while changing how it deals with security issues.

No matter: It's unlikely that you're going to trust your private information to Microsoft. And you won't have to. Instead, Microsoft has designed Hailstorm to give you control over your personal information. As I mentioned last time, if you don't want an e-tailer such as Amazon.com or eBay to store your credit card or other personal information using Hailstorm technology, they won't. You can determine which information to forward over the Internet, and to whom.

The basis for this flexibility is Passport, which serves as the .NET authentication system. Of course, the thought of a potential Passport hack will probably leave many users worried about their personal data. But you'll be able to determine what information you store remotely; if you prefer to enter a credit card number manually each time you make a purchase online, you can choose to do so. Whether or not you choose to store your information with Passport, a merchant will simply receive payment—not your credit card data—when you complete a transaction.

For developers, Hailstorm will present opportunities that haven't existed since Windows 95 first became available. Now that such things as email, calendaring, and raw document storage will be available as programmable services, developers will be able to write new breeds of applications. Imagine a cell phone feature that reads your email to you or an online travel service that can automatically query your calendar and find flights that work within your schedule. These are just simple examples of the types of Hailstorm-enabled applications that will be available.

Microsoft has done something valuable here, and it flies in the face of the company's usual practice of shutting out third-party application developers with each new platform release. Instead of providing full-featured solutions for users, Microsoft will instead provide a number of consumable services that any application developer can take advantage of. Yes, Microsoft will provide an email application and a travel service. But for the first time, the same tools that are available to Microsoft developers will be available to all developers. The company has opened up the back end, giving developers a real chance to shine. And for end users, these developments will result in high-quality choices from a variety of vendors.

So when will this nirvana arrive? Microsoft will begin private beta tests of its Hailstorm services soon, with public betas to begin in the fall. We can expect to see some services roll out individually; although the recent preview of MSN Music isn't necessarily a .NET service, we can expect to see similar rollouts for various Hailstorm services in late 2001.

Additionally, Microsoft will begin integrating Hailstorm services into future products. The company says that the next version of Microsoft Office, code-named Office 11 (post-Office XP), will use Hailstorm services. And upcoming versions of the PocketPC, Xbox gaming console, and "Stinger" smart cell phones will, of course, be designed with Hailstorm in mind. Windows XP, as I mentioned previously, will provide very basic Hailstorm functionality, with its integration of the next version of Passport. Windows XP is due to ship in the third quarter 2001. And Microsoft says that we can expect the final release of Hailstorm in early 2002. I expect the company to expand on its initial list of available services by then and to add to the list for future releases as well.