Microsoft waves Passport to corporate clients

When Greg Milliken, vice president of marketing at Richardson, Texas-based Alibre Inc., signs onto his company's Web-based design software, he can also check his Hotmail account, send instant messages over Windows Messenger and visit various password-protected Web sites without having to reenter his login and password.

That's because Alibre's product, a CAD (Computer-Aided Design) architectural rendering application used by manufacturers like GE Power Systems, a division of General Electric Co., is built with Microsoft Corp.'s single sign-on authentication technology at its core.

Alibre is an early adopter of the lofty Internet initiative called Microsoft. Net, a wide-reaching strategy to offer the software and tools needed to build and deploy Web-based applications and services. The ASP (application service provider) has outfitted its online design software with some of Microsoft's new Web services and technologies included with the Windows XP operating system, which will be widely released Thursday.

When Alibre's customers sign on to the CAD application they use a Passport account, the Microsoft authentication service used by about 165 million subscribers to access Web sites and services operated by the software maker and its partners. From within Alibre's application, users can also chat with each other using text, audio or video as well as share files, because Microsoft's new Windows Messenger software is built in.

"If I'm logged into Windows Messenger I never have to log in again to Alibre," Milliken said. "It just happens under the covers."

Alibre is a Microsoft software development partner, and so hardly a neutral user of its products. But it does offer an example of the type of company Microsoft hopes to win over as it continues to roll out pieces of .Net and downplays offerings in the works from rivals, such as Sun Microsystems Inc and its Sun ONE (Open Network Environment). The Redmond, Washington, software maker will try to further the strategy at its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles starting Monday, and throughout the week will disclose more of the technology and business model behind .Net My Services, the new moniker for its Hailstorm offerings.

The company hopes to lure businesses to .Net My Services, Windows XP, and its .Net enterprise servers. According to Microsoft, these pieces combined will enable customers to build an infrastructure that turns their corporate IT environment into a network in which data can be stored in various places on the Web, instead of on a central server, and where users will be able to access software and services from a handheld computer, cell phone or other device.

Analysts and even Microsoft's competitors say the concept is a good one, but many question the way in which Microsoft is implementing its strategy. Sun Microsystems Inc., Oracle Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and others have long agreed that software is on its way to becoming a service, and that businesses will use the Internet and Web services like a utility. One point on which the two camps are divided is the matter of who will own the utility and the information that passes through it.

With .Net, Microsoft will have access to some of the personal information submitted by those who use its Web services. In the case of Alibre, because its customers must use Passport accounts to sign on to Alibre's Web application, all of Alibre's customers effectively also become Microsoft customers. By signing up for a Passport account they join the growing network of registered users that Microsoft is amassing. But critics say Microsoft could have a hard time convincing businesses to use its services if it means turning over information about their employees and customers.

"They've still got to allay a lot of concerns about Hailstorm," said Brent Williams, an analyst with McDonald Investments Inc. in Cleveland, Ohio. "There are a lot of concerns about security and vulnerability of centralized services. I think every opportunity Microsoft takes to talk about (Hailstorm) more is critical."

Sun contends that corporations should own the infrastructure and the data that Microsoft would collect with its Passport service, and recently unveiled the Liberty Alliance Project as an alternative. Also promoting a single-sign-on service, Sun argues that the entry point to Web services should be controlled by the business offering those services, not Microsoft. As Sun describes the concept, companies would be able to build their own Web services into applications without giving up important data.

"We'll give companies the software and hardware and services so they can operate authentication and services on their own," said Marge Breya, vice president of Sun ONE, which is developing software that it hopes will rival some of Microsoft's .Net products. Breya said the company plans to announce news related to the Sun ONE platform Tuesday.

"Every one of (Microsoft's) services are built in some way, shape or form around Passport," she said. "You've got to ask yourself why any company would go give their employee list and their customer list to another company."

Alibre, which has been a Microsoft customer since its founding in 1997, said the answer has to do with reducing costs and making it easier to do business. "One of the huge benefits of Windows XP and .Net is that we have now off-loaded having to create that real-time communication and peer-to-peer features," Milliken said. "We don't have to spend the money and resource to maintain our own versions" of messaging and notification tools.

Similar offerings due from Sun and other vendors promise similar benefits. However, companies are subscribing to .Net because it is available now, and because it offers development tools and other products that long-time Windows developers are familiar with, argued Jim Cullinan, a spokesman for Microsoft's Windows division. "This is a platform that enterprise companies can take advantage of now," he said.

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