Update: Microsoft stakes future on .Net strategy

REDMOND, WASH. -- Microsoft Corp. is betting its future on .Net, a vision of Internet software services that the company announced here yesterday. But initial reactions were somewhat skeptical, with users and analysts noting that the core technologies are unproven and that many key components are years from delivery.

.Net -- previously referred to as Next Generation Windows Services (see story) -- is a layer of software that runs on both servers and client machines. It provides an environment for all kinds of client devices to access services that live on the Web or on enterprise servers, according to Microsoft. The company said .Net will work on Windows and other operating systems, although it didn't specify which ones or when they would be supported.

On the server side, Microsoft's upcoming Visual Studio 7 will provide development tools for making applications available as Internet-based services through the use of technologies such as XML and the company's proposed Simple Object Access Protocol specification. Microsoft said it also will offer some of these services itself.

For end users, .Net provides a sparse, browser-like user interface without any menu bars. A key concept in the new user interface is the "universal canvas," which Microsoft said eliminates the borders between different applications. For example, spreadsheet and word processing features will be available inside e-mail documents. .Net also will support handwriting and speech recognition, the company said.

"This will affect every part of application code that gets written," said Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates. "It affects the user interface. There's no part of Microsoft that won't get touched."

Some analysts were upbeat about the potential of the new strategy, which was scheduled to be announced earlier this month but was delayed because of U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's order that Microsoft be broken up on antitrust grounds -- an order that the company plans to appeal (see story).

"I haven't seen any (competing vision) that is as all-encompassing," said Roger Kay, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. "A lot depends on how (Microsoft goes) about forming partnerships," said Kay, who added that he believes .Net's chances of success are "better than 50%."

Steve Kleynhans, an Ontario-based analyst who works at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., echoed Kay's opinion on the breadth and depth of Microsoft's plans. But, he said, "getting there from here is going to be very difficult."

Although Version 1.0 of the .Net client for Windows, dubbed Windows.Net, will ship next year, the server side as well as the "complete" .Net user interface won't be ready until 2002 or beyond, according to Microsoft executives. Kleynhans said he thinks it may in fact take the company until 2004 to fully deliver on its .Net promises.

That's a long wait in Internet time, said Mohammad Rashid, chief technology officer at Goinvest.com Inc. in Santa Monica, Calif. "We are building applications today, so we have to go with a mature standard," said Rashid, who is building an online trading system based on Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Enterprise Java Beans technology.

But if .Net does become prevalent, "it should be able to talk to other object technologies," Rashid said. "That's the promise of XML."

Other users voiced doubts about the development model Microsoft plans to use.

"I don't think there is enough knowledge around XML and what its abilities are yet for Microsoft to be planning something like this," said Forrest Newstrom, manager of systems and programming at the Alaska USA Federal Credit Union. Newstrom said he'll investigate .Net but is skeptical about it.

Deepak Amin, CEO of vJungle Inc., an application service provider for small businesses, said he's convinced that XML will prevail - but not necessarily Microsoft's vision of it. Developers may be hesitant to plug Microsoft-owned services into their own Web applications. Amin said. "It raises issues of privacy and of ownership of the client," he noted. "It's certainly not a given that Microsoft will succeed."

There's also a widespread fear that, despite Microsoft's professed support for open standards, adopters will still get locked into a proprietary technology. "If they do like they have done in other areas, they will try to skew it (to) their own best interest," said James Harvey, vice president of technology at Visible Markets Inc. in Boston.

Some users said they believe Microsoft will prevail, no matter what. "Microsoft is such a force, it's hard for the rest of the industry not to go in the same direction," said Bart Fitzgerald, vice president and CIO at Central Programs Inc. in Bethany, Mo.

Frank Huster, a technology manager/architect at Wells Fargo Services Co. in Concord, Calif., said he's very interested in tracking .Net, even though his company has made a heavy commitment to using the enterprise version of Java. "We're keeping our eye on both the Microsoft platform and the (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) platform," he said. "We don't want to put all our eggs in one basket."

Consultant Chris Dickey at CDickey.com in San Diego said he expects .Net to be a hot topic at a developer's conference Microsoft is hosting the week of July 10.

Patrick Thibodeau, Carol Sliwa and Christine McGeever contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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