HailStorm: Wrath of Microsoft?

COMMENTARY--As Microsoft moves forward with its HailStorm project, you can be sure that many Microsoft critics will still be fighting the last war. That is, they will fret mightily about Microsoft's "past behavior."

As Microsoft moves forward with its HailStorm project, you can be sure that many Microsoft critics will still be fighting the last war. That is, they will fret mightily about Microsoft's "past behavior."

It's something to keep in mind when reading the prognostications about HailStorm. Oftentimes it's hard to distinguish the arguments about Microsoft's business model for HailStorm from the lingering dislike of and disagreement with the company.

For example, based on past behavior, some have predicted that Microsoft won't play nice with other corporate partners in the HailStorm project.

One wonders if that is really a question about the business model. Whatever you think about the prospects for the proposed project, and personally, I'm skeptical, the fact is Microsoft is planning to succeed at a service business - something that fundamentally requires cooperation. The manipulation of consumer information back and forth from electronic commerce sites, for example, becomes valueless in a hardball business environment. If Microsoft shuts out too many potential partners, it reduces the overall appeal of its services. One would think at least, that Microsoft, and corporate partners like eBay who have signed on, are accounting for that.

Another argument aimed at trashing the HailStorm brand points at Microsoft's "opposition" to privacy legislation. According to John McCarthy, a group director at Forrester Research and a privacy expert, this means they are being "hypocritical":

"They themselves are waving the flag for privacy, 'We're good citizens, we treat everyone with respect.' Yet they have joined the industry alliance to slow down privacy legislation. That strikes me as hypocritical."

This remark strikes me as obtuse.

First of all, what kind of privacy legislation are we talking about? Too often, "privacy" is a treated as a word like "motherhood," so that if you tack it onto the front of proposed legislation, the legislation becomes unassailable.

If you are trying to protect private data as your service offering, as Microsoft is, do you want the government to come in and tell you how to run such a business - as if it were an entitlement? That's not hypocrisy, it's common sense. It also sends a signal that Microsoft has some understanding of its business model.

But many of the privacy advocates have a fundamentally different view of the Net, and they don't like where Microsoft and other corporate interests are taking it. They are opposed to a gradual evolution of privacy according to competing experiments in the marketplace.

Fine. But don't expect them to provide a dispassionate assessment of HailStorm. For these folks, watching Microsoft sell HailStorm is like watching the haunted house look appealing to the young woman in the horror movie. They shout at the screen "Don't go in! Are you crazy?!"

The really important questions about HailStorm have to do with security against private and political prying. Microsoft has already admitted that it has security lapses. And then there are the legal issues of whether private consumer data is free from government searches and seizures. One would assume Microsoft will not make the mistake made by the likes of MP3.com, and offer a service without some understanding of how firm the legal ground is under its feet.

To me, these are the key questions that I as a consumer want to hear answered, as I ponder what on its face appears to be a personally risky service offering. Not some vague meditations on whether Microsoft is a "good corporate citizen" that supports the "right" legislation.

Matt Carolan is Online News Editor of Interactive Week and a columnist for Newsday.