Next Generation Microsoft: .NET or ?NET

After months of tantalizing hints and vague references, Microsoft Corp. finally unveiled major portions of its Next Generation Windows Services last month. The unwieldy name has been reduced to .NET.

To hear company president and CEO Steve Ballmer tell it, .NET is the most significant project Microsoft has taken on in years. Ballmer has ulterior motives for saying this, such as to buoy investor and employee confidence that the company has a future at the core of computing rather than at the periphery. But there are exciting elements of the project that could give Microsoft continued relevance as the PC evolves into a more symbiotic role with mobile devices, network servers, and Internet-based services.

One is the idea of a universal canvas. The client-side software provides users with a single interface to browse the Web, create documents, analyze spreadsheets, and send e-mail. This is the part of the .NET project Bill Gates has been focusing on in his role as chief software architect, if anyone was wondering what he was up to other than dealing with anti-trust matters. A universal canvas would end the need to cut and paste from the browser to a Word document then cut and paste to e-mail: It would make the Web a richer platform to work from.

Microsoft is also creating a new tier with .NET by hosting services and making them available over the Internet. A few of the core .NET building block services include identity services, notification and messaging services, and calendar services.

At the same time, another Microsoft .NET design goal is to distribute code where it fits best, be it on the client, on the server, or out on the cloud. A disconnected client might have all services and code loaded on to it. A security conscious firm might host all the new Microsoft services on its own server rather than trust any to Redmond. Through this distributed environment, Microsoft also intends to create a seamless experience for users as they move from PC to mobile device to PC again throughout the day.

Microsoft’s proposals are preliminary, of course, but the company is on to something here. Microsoft’s roots and revenue are tied to the PC, and this new strategy keeps the PC as a centerpiece. That’s not just convenient. Bandwidth is a concern and will continue to be a concern for businesses and consumers for many years to come. Even when wireless technologies and broadband connections are pervasive, there will be things that those technologies will be good for, and there will still be things the PC will be better for.

The real question is whether Microsoft is the right company to bring all this out. Ballmer says no one else -- Oracle Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. are examples he gives -- has all the elements necessary to kick start an industry initiative like .NET. That is, of course, the biggest problem with .NET. Microsoft itself may soon lack the range necessary to support .NET.

Microsoft’s applications, operating system, broadband investments, and other pieces such as MSN all must work together to make .NET a reality.

Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson’s recent anti-trust ruling will break the company in two. The onus now lies on Microsoft to reverse the situation, not with the government to make it happen. Microsoft executives so far have refused to acknowledge the very real possibility that Microsoft will be broken up. This means the rest of us have no idea if Microsoft has any contingency plans in place at all for pursuing .NET amid a legal split.

As promising technologically as it sounds, Microsoft’s current legal strategy makes us look on .NET as the most tenuous kind of vaporware. Microsoft needs to publicly disclose a post-breakup roadmap for .NET if it wants IT administrators and developers to take the plan seriously.