MapPoint .NET shows potential, but is Microsoft in too deep?

Launched in April, Microsoft's MapPoint .NET Web service is the company's only commercial Web service to date and one of only a few public Web services in existence.

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Despite Microsoft Corp.'s status as a high profile Web service vendor, MapPoint .NET is the company's only commercial Web service to date. According to one customer, MapPoint proves that Web services can be usable and affordable, but industry insiders say the development of public, for-profit Web services may be more difficult than Microsoft wants the industry to believe.

Launched in April, MapPoint .NET is based on Microsoft's MapPoint mapping and location technology. The technology is the basis for several of Microsoft's products, including its MSN MapPoint consumer Web site for mapping street addresses and its MapPoint 2002 software for helping businesses use maps to visualize trends and demographics.

With MapPoint .NET, Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft has allowed third-party software makers to connect their own Web-based applications, for a fee, to the MapPoint Web service API. Software makers can then utilize the MapPoint technology from within their own products in a number of ways.

For example, San Francisco-based Zone Labs Inc., a maker of Internet security software, has incorporated MapPoint .NET Web services into its Zone Alarm Pro and Zone Alarm Plus PC security products.

When Zone Labs' software identifies a security threat, users of either Zone Labs product can click a button and the software collects IP addresses, port numbers and other information identifying the threat. It then plugs that information into the MapPoint .NET API, and the Web service returns a map displaying the threat's geographic location.

Fred Felman, vice president of marketing for Zone Labs, said that after evaluating several similar offerings, Zone Labs chose to use MapPoint .NET not only because of its successful trial period but also because it was among the most affordable and reliable mapping services available.

Third-party software companies wishing to use MapPoint .NET must either pay a yearly platform access fee of $15,000 and a license fee for each device or application using the Web service, or a flat fee based on the company's total annual number of Web service transactions.

"We felt like it was a better idea [to use MapPoint .NET], as opposed to getting into a geo-location business on our own," Felman said. "We decided strategically that our investments should be in making our customers more secure and not going outside our core competency."

On its Web site, Microsoft lists Zone Labs and about a half dozen other companies as MapPoint customers, demonstrating that the Web service is being used commercially. However, Simon Hayward, vice president and research director for Gartner Inc., said Microsoft may not be eager to put forth more Web services because it likely learned through its MapPoint .NET experience that developing and deploying a commercial Web service is no easy task.

In fact, Hayward said, MapPoint .NET is one of only a handful of Web services Gartner has found that has both operational and commercial implications for the market because most of today's enterprise Web services development is internally focused.

Hayward, who recently authored the report "MapPoint .NET -- A Natural Web Service," said MapPoint was an ideal product to develop into a Web service.

"The type of functionality it offers is sufficiently rich so that it's of interest to third parties, but it's also self-contained and can be packaged fairly neatly in a Web service interface," Hayward said.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, said Hayward, it may not be as easy to package other offerings as Web services because there are no existing guidelines for ironing out infrastructure details, like how to track and bill for use of the Web service and how to move from a staging environment to a live one.

"The testing, staging and deployment model is quite complex, and it also has to have the metrication side built in, so that the company deploying the combined application ends up knowing how many times the Web service is used, how effective it is and how much it will cost," Hayward said.

Hayward said Microsoft is likely profiting from the Web service both financially and in the lessons it has learned from developing it, but that doesn't mean the company is eager or able to unleash all of its software as Web services right away.

"MapPoint is a pretty small piece of the puzzle for Microsoft, and I suspect this was a nice way to experiment off in a corner," he said.

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