Microsoft Corp.'s concept is intriguing, to say the least: create a common way of representing data so that consumers and businesses can use the Internet to access data wherever they may be, from whichever computer device they care to use.
For instance, from the front seat of his sport-utility vehicle, a woman could enter her password into an in-dash computer and have her collection of digital music files downloaded to the car stereo. A man in a grocery store could be notified on his cell phone that a package he is expecting is about to be delivered to his home. A sales executive could use her handheld computer to close a deal, first checking to make sure the 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 10th year, the event is one of Microsoft's premiere events for teaching computer programmers techniques to turn emerging technologies into reality.
The efforts to make accessing data and services as easy as turning on the television to see Dan Rather on the evening news are no longer a pie-in-the-sky sideshow, they are now the main event for Microsoft and many of its developers. In fact, it was all Microsoft product managers and engineers cared to talk about, as they set aside discussions of more established techniques for designing Windows applications to pitch the software maker's emerging Internet initiative, called .Net.
It begins with a philosophy spreading across Microsoft's software product line that says all data should be created equal. Teach computers to not differentiate a digital music file from an e-mail file and users will be able to search for, manage and access their data in a host of new ways. Once data is made equal, Microsoft says, it must be stored in public or private networks in secure and reliable computers.
If the pieces fall into place it could open up 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 has said it could be seven years before the model of anytime, anywhere data is fully realized.
One possible outcome is that users would be able to 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," said Paul Flessner, senior vice president of Microsoft's enterprise software division. For example, a user subscribing to Microsoft Office through an Internet service provider would be able to use the software regardless of whether it was installed locally on the device being used, assuming a connection were available.
Among the added benefits for consumers, the service provider could take 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 computer used to access the application.
Microsoft's vision for what it loosely calls distributed computing rivals similar plans articulated by vendors including IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and even Sun Microsystems Inc., which created 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 different 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," said Dana Gardner, research director with technology analyst firm Aberdeen Group Inc., in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was among nearly 8,000 attendees at Tech Ed.
Invisibility was also the hope of Thomas Doeppner, a professor of computer science at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, who traveled to New Orleans for Microsoft's conference.
"The end user doesn't care about what's happening in the background as long as it works," he said. "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."
But making it easy to use could turn out to be one of the hardest parts. Flessner made that clear in a speech here Thursday in which he was joined by Pat Helland, a Microsoft senior software architect, to spell out the company's vision for a distributed computing system that will facilitate the world of Web-based services.
Most of that vision relies on a technology called XML (Extensible Markup Language). Flessner and Helland described the road map of products Microsoft is developing that will use XML to describe all types of data, including music, text and picture files, to create a common way of searching for and managing those files. Microsoft calls that model Unified Data and says it will be a necessary step in providing businesses and consumers with fast access to content and services that are distributed across the Internet.
Microsoft said it plans to build its Unified Data technology into all of its software products, starting with the next version of its SQL Server database, due out in a test version later this year. The technology should allow a user to conduct a keyword search from a computer and have it return relevant files no matter what format they are saved in and no matter where they are stored in a network, according to Stan Sorensen, marketing director with Microsoft's SQL Server software team.
"That's very different from the way it is done today," Sorensen said.
Over the next five to seven years, Microsoft will bake the technology behind Unified Data into the remainder of its software products, eventually reaching a future desktop version of Windows, officials here said.
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. Additionally, software companies are only beginning to agree on a standard way of building Web-based applications. Microsoft and IBM on Thursday detailed the latest proposal to standardize methods of delivering Web services securely, but they have yet to garner wide industry support. Privacy concerns among consumers also have hampered the development of some new services.
Flessner compared 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 said.