Chatrooms and message boards will probably start buzzing again about

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

. This time the gossip won't be about Mister Softee missing estimates; rather cyberyentas will chatter about a hush-hush presentation given by

Bill Gates

in Redmond, Wash., on March 19.

Microsoft founder and chief architect Gates will present a set of developers' tools for Web services, code-named

Hailstorm

, according to a Microsoft employee who asked not to be named. In part, the initiative will be aimed at dislodging

America Online's

(AOL)

position at the top of the instant messaging market.

Microsoft's public relations battalion is machine-gunning the press and other company watchers with invitations to the secret "key announcement" that will provide an important peek into the company's future .Net strategy that focuses on delivering applications through the Web.

Hailstorm would be a group of integrated software components, including an updated version of Microsoft's

Passport

and

MSN Messenger

instant messaging technology. Passport is an Internet authentication service that allows people to keep a single login that can used to access various registration-required Web sites from any device.

Microsoft is seeking to head off America Online's dominance in instant messaging by making IM a development platform, not just a stand-alone application. Microsoft's vision would have instant messaging used for multiple purposes, including email, and news flashes. Presumably the popularity of Hailstorm's tools will make having MSN Messenger a necessity, not the afterthought it is now for Web surfers. As Web services infrastructure, it will become part of the foundation for .Net and will take Microsoft's IM service with it.

AOL's instant messaging system, which dominates the market with 130 million users compared with MSN's 18 million, isn't interoperable with other messaging systems -- unfairly so, according to smaller messaging companies. Microsoft and other players interested in entering the IM game have been pushing for standards of interoperability.

IM Unified for example, is an organization comprised of companies including

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

,

Excite@Home

(ATHM) - Get Report

and

Microsoft

which seek open standards.

"AOL has tried to maintain the walled garden around its IM service, but their executives are very concerned about powerhouse Microsoft. Hailstorm seems to be a step towards more-open standards," said Ross Bagully, a

CMGI

executive who co-founded IM unified.

Microsoft designed Hailstorm for developers writing Web services that can reside anywhere on the network and can be accessed by any Internet-connected PC or device, sources said. Gates' presentation will come less than a week after a day-long Hailstorm show-and-tell party for developers on March 15.

"Microsoft has always been great at tools. But investors should worry about profit and losses now. Hailstorm is in the future," said

Jurika and Voyles

fund manager Nicholas Moore, who has no position in Microsoft.