Microsoft'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 her 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 mobile 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.

Equality bytes

The efforts to make accessing data and services as easy as turning on the television 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 that spread itself across Microsoft's software product line, saying all data should be created equal. Teach computers to not differentiate a digital music file from an email 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 realised.

Running all over the world

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.

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 firms including IBM, HP and even Sun Microsystems, which created the Java programming language, perhaps the greatest challenger to .Net.

But in any event, it shouldn't be an issue to people who will end up subscribing to the services.

What everyone wants

Invisibility was the hope of Thomas Doeppner, a professor of computer science at Brown University, Rhode Island, who travelled 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 on 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.

Although it may seem closer now than ever, building this networked world presents challenges and uncertainties.

Making it work together

Software companies are only just beginning to agree on a standard way of building web-based applications. Microsoft and IBM on Thursday detailed the latest proposal to standardise methods of delivering Web services securely, but they have yet to garner wide support in the industry. 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.