Microsoft Attempts to Demystify .NET

LAS VEGAS-- Microsoft had one focus at this year’s Comdex: .NET. Redmond’s new visionfor Internet-based computing was everywhere.

This is anecessary step for Microsoft. The new bet-the-company strategy is one of thebest-publicized and least-understood concepts in the computer industry over thelast half year.

Microsofthas no one but itself to blame for the confusion, and this may explain itsrelentless push to demystify the .NET framework. To that end, chairman andchief software architect Bill Gates devoted a substantial portion of his Comdexkeynote discussing the technology.

And tofurther get the concept of .NET out through the press, Craig Mundie, seniorvice president of advanced strategies, held a briefing with reporters.

Mundiedescribed what he called the three stages of the Internet, which is the basisfor .NET. Stage one, covering the first 25 years, was what he termed the“plumbing” phase -- mostly routing and protocol development.

Next camethe browser phase, which Mundie said began in the mid-1990s. It was the era ofHTTP, HTML, and people reading Web pages offered by servers. It was a time of“great experimentation,” Mundie said, but also a time of mostly one-waycommunication, with the server and browser pushing bits to the end user.

We’re nowentering the third phase, Mundie continued, which he termed the processorphase, with the diffusion of microprocessors into the environment. That,combined with the connectivity offered by the Internet, means the old way ofdeveloping and marketing packaged software is now obsolete.

A new modelis emerging, Mundie claimed: “The next computer architecture is the Internetconnecting a broad array of devices.” Under the previous model, applicationssat on top of Microsoft-created Windows, and the delivery vehicle was thedesktop or servers. We are now, Mundie said, “moving to the Internet being thedelivery vehicle. What’s missing now is a framework for people to write”software for that vehicle.

Enter the.NET strategy. It’s essentially a set of services and development tools thatallow applications to interact over the IP-based Internet world. Microsoft,Mundie said, “wants to create an environment where programs can talk to otherprograms.”

Thelanguage they’ll be speaking, Microsoft believes, is XML and simple objectaccess protocol (SOAP). XML and .NET are like peanut butter and jelly, orBatman and Robin -- when you think of one, Microsoft wants you think of theother.

XML, Mundieexplained, is a “much more extensible way of describing unlimited types ofinformation.” It overcomes the limitations of what he calls a “technical flawin the Internet -- it doesn’t describe data separately from [that data’s]presentation.”

XML is alsoa key to the .NET goal of applications working on any Internet-enabledappliance, whether it’s a cell phone, Palm Pilot, or the new Tablet PC Gatespreviewed during his keynote. XML allows information to be presented in aninfinitely variable number of ways, instead of just in a browser window, whichdoesn’t translate well on a personal digital assistant.

Gates gavean example of this during his keynote. XML, he said, “allows the interface tobe independent of what goes on the Web server. If you want to write a Webserver that deals with 20 different screen phones, all with differentresolutions, different keyboard layouts, that application generates the XML,and the mapping onto the individual screen phone can then be a very simplepiece of logic that executes either on the server or down on the client,depending on how rich that is.”

Microsoftis committed as fully to XML, in fact, as it is to .NET. “We’re aggressivelyusing XML,” Mundie said.

Thiscommitment is evident in the newest version of Visual Studio.NET, Microsoft’schief development tool. Visual Studio.NET went into beta release the morningafter Gates opened Comdex with his keynote address. Core revenue-generatingMicrosoft products like Windows 2000, Exchange 2000, and SQL Server 2000 allhave some XML capability built in, and future versions will have more XMLfunctionality.

VisualStudio.NET, Gates said, “is a really radical advance in the language. We'reactually taking the work we're doing in these languages … and we're submittingthat to standards bodies. So the entire language spec, the rich run time, weare completely giving up control of that. The standards committees can take it,innovate with it, and let there be a lot of rich innovation from many differentcompanies, including our competitors.”

XML andSOAP are platform-independent, standards that, ironically, could hurt Windows2000 sales. If Mundie is concerned, he doesn’t show it. He feels Microsoft hadto move in this direction if it was to continue to survive and thrive.

If that’sso -- if the operating system running on a machine becomes less important --howexactly will Microsoft make money in the future? The answer lies in anotheroft-repeated Comdex phrase: software as a service. Mundie said Microsoft willbe offering a number of subscription-based services, including premium.NET,msn.NET, bcentral.NET, and Visual Studio/MSDN.NET.

The firstphase of the rent-as-you-go philosophy was revealed at Comdex, when Microsoftannounced that Office 10, the next generation of Office software, will have asubscription option.

Only timewill tell if this new business model will work for Microsoft, but it seemsclear that Microsoft has turned the ship in the .NET direction.

As Gatessaid during his keynote, “we're moving into this new era -- an era with lots ofdifferent devices, but a new model for how these devices work together. Asoftware-to-software model built around XML.”

Mundie waseven more emphatic about .NET and what it means for Microsoft: “This is a hugebusiness transition that changes fundamentally the business relationshipMicrosoft has with its customers. We think this is fundamental. It willredefine computing and the way people interact with computing.”