September 12, 2002 4:00 AM PDT

Microsoft exec's Web services blues

One of Microsoft's top executives says that his company is frustrated by the slow adoption of consumer-oriented Web services, once heralded as the future of online commerce.

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"When we look out on the landscape, we don't see enough Web sites--and, in particular, customer-facing sites--that have XML Web services interfaces that people can take advantage of," Jim Allchin, Microsoft's senior vice president for Windows, told CNET News.com.

Given Microsoft's own struggles to establish a consumer-oriented Web services plan called .Net My Services, Allchin's comments come as no surprise. But his statement reveals the level of frustration within Microsoft over sluggish industry acceptance for what some in the company saw as a can't-miss proposition. Others might interpret his remarks as a call to action for Microsoft's partners to make the .Net plan a success.

While Web services developed using Extensible Markup Language (XML) are being used by some corporations to link disparate systems, wide-scale, consumer-oriented Web services have yet to catch on.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates in July said some parts of the company's .Net plan--in particular, consumer-oriented Web services--were lagging. That plan includes new releases of Microsoft's products and a significant push behind Web services, which promises to make the linking of internal computer systems and systems residing in multiple companies far easier than with current methods.

Allchin said he thinks the overall vision of XML Web services has been quite successful.

"From my perspective," Allchin said, "I would certainly like to see a lot more (consumer-oriented Web services). There are some already out there. There are more inside companies. This is happening inside companies, no question. But in terms of customer-facing (sites), does Amazon have a Web services interface? No."

Amazon.com, like Google and a few other Web sites, does offer a Web services interface using XML and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP). Using them, a developer can write a Web service that searches and retrieves information from Amazon's product list, or returns search results from Google, for instance. What's unclear is just how popular the interfaces are with developers.

Just a year ago, industry experts and technology makers had envisioned wide-ranging services that would share access to a pool of customer data to enhance services such as shopping and banking. An e-commerce site, for example, could be given access to a person's credit card data, shipping information and calendar to automatically set up a delivery time.

Allchin said part of the reason for the holdup could be complexity. "Today you still have to write more code than you would if all the plumbing was done for you. That could be one (reason)," he said. Additional Web services standards, which Microsoft and other technology makers are devising, should help ease that problem, he said.

Other experts said trust is more likely a larger roadblock to acceptance of the Web services concept. A continuing spate of security holes in products from Microsoft and other makers, coupled with a reluctance to hand over personal information to online services providers, helped to stall Microsoft's initial plan, analysts said. Microsoft is attempting to bolster the security of its products and services. In a January e-mail to Microsoft employees, Gates termed security the company's top priority.

Microsoft's .Net My Services plan was to become a "digital safe-deposit box" for hosting and delivering that personal information to partners, while providing an array of services, ranging from commerce to communications, with Web retailers such as eBay. The company had hoped that consumers would pay fees that would cover the bulk of the expense to run these one-stop services, which would manage passwords, calendars and other personal information.

But that plan is on hold due to resistance from potential partners over Microsoft's central role, and general confusion over business goals. While Microsoft reassesses its plans, the company is also packaging the underlying .Net My Services technology as a server software product that will allow any other organization to host its own data store. Analysts said that plan stands a better chance of commercial success.

One analyst said consumer-oriented Web services won't catch on until providers figure out what consumers are really willing to pay for. "Presentation after presentation over the past year has focused on selling Web services to consumers, (on) some sort of fee-based services. It's a really tough thing to do," said Rob Horwitz, an analyst with Directions On Microsoft, a market research firm in Kirkland, Wash. "About the only thing that has come out so far (from Microsoft) is extra storage for Hotmail.

"It is really tough to think of what will consumers pay for, especially now (given the sluggish economy). It's not clear that people will buy extra things," Horwitz said. "They will say 'why should I pay for this, when there are other more important things that I need? Explain to me why I need this.' I have never seen a demonstration that would compel me to pay for something on top of my ISP (Internet service provider) account."

 

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