When Microsoft launched its .net initiative last June, it aroused mixed feelings. Coming at the climax of its bitter tussle with the US Government, some observers saw it as yet another bid to extend its domination of PC operating systems to the Internet. Others argued that Microsoft had lost the plot, producing idealistic and unworkable plans that would not prevent its fortunes from foundering.
Nine months later, even the first elements of what has evolved from Windows DNA are still in the beta stage, and there is little general understanding of what .net is about. But Microsoft has found willing advocates among partners such as ICL, KPMG and Webridge, which have bought into its vision and are starting to use it to develop new products.
Microsoft itself is keen to stress the visionary aspect of .net, claiming that the initiative will provide greatly increased levels of interactive linkage, automation and flexibility. "It expresses our view of how we believe applications will be built and the way the industry is moving," says Phil Cross, developer marketing manager at Microsoft's UK strategic business development arm.
Even less committed observers agree that these kinds of technologies - whether developed by Microsoft or by rivals such as Sun Microsystems and IBM - are indeed the way forward and have huge implications for the way organisations do business.
On a practical level, .net describes a set of tools and infrastructures for developing new applications, now starting to become available in beta versions. Microsoft also uses it to refer to the services based on these building blocks, which it and its partners will eventually be marketing.
So what does .net actually do? Described by Microsoft as its strategy for delivering software as a service, .net creates an environment for client devices to access services stored on the Web or on enterprise servers. The server element, called Visual Studio 7, provides tools that link applications automatically using XML and the simple object access protocol.
Some critics have seen this as a return to the thin-client approach, which enthusiasts predicted would replace the PC. But .net goes further, making it possible to build applications from a series of separate components, providing greater levels of flexibility in the way that organisations build and maintain their systems.
A major effect of .net, says Cross, will be to provide automatic linkage between Web sites, providing greater speed and scope in organisations' contacts with partners, suppliers and customers. For instance, a courier company such as UPS, which is looking at adopting the technology, could automatically provide status reports on customers' orders directly to a shopping portal, saving them the bother of having to come out and click onto UPS' site.
Use of .net would also make it easier to connect back-end systems to the Web, so that a bricks-and-clicks site could display the same levels of stock online as in its high-street shops, which is often not the case. Accounting reconciliation could also be automated to a greater extent.
Another major benefit could be in secondary sourcing, enabling companies to broadcast automatically their supply needs and suppliers to pick up the signal with similar ease, providing opportunities for greater competition in terms of speed and cost.
One early adopter is ICL, which has been working on .net for the past 18 months and predicts that it will bring about big changes in the IT industry.
"It really means the death of the old software provision model," says Marc Silvester, director of partner technologies. Presently, a business system is essentially a snapshot of where the company was when it was implemented. But swapping components means that, in future, it could evolve in line with the business itself.
This will have a major impact on the role and skill-set of decision-makers. Silvester sees IT managers trading components of information and functionality to keep applications up-to- date with market developments.
"We foresee them dealing on a day-to-day basis with other organisations that supply process information and application functionality to meet today's requirement inside the business model," he says. The emphasis will shift from the building of infrastructure to application engineering, with IT managers learning broking skills used by City traders, he suggests.
KPMG Consulting has also committed to .net, and is developing products in its labs in Watford in partnership with Compaq, which has invested £1.8m in the project.
"Anyone who doesn't take .net seriously as a contender for e-business will be seriously narrowing their options," argues Simon Thomason, head of e-engineering at KPMG Consulting. "There are other capable solutions in the marketplace but this is the first fully-integrated suite that supports an enterprise out of the box."
Webridge's director of European operations Gregory Darmohray says, "We are as excited as we can be about .net both from the business and technical perspective, as it greatly simplifies the way applications are built."
Darmohray is pleased with the range of languages that can be accommodated. "Right now we are limited to Java, Visual Basic and J Script; whereas with .net our customers can take any language, no matter how esoteric, and make customisations in the Webridge environment."
Some users have also taken the plunge, betting on .net despite its unproven status. One is Medexonline, a new e-procurement site that has found in .net a level of bespoke tailoring absent from existing solutions.
A major high-street bank is trialing a new product developed by ICL called Lifestyle Banking, which is built with Com+ components and will deliver a complete online banking solution. "It uses the application service provider model and in the future parts can be improved in real time, so there doesn't have to be any down [time]," says Silvester.
Now that .net is becoming a reality, what should firms do to prepare for it? Let your imagination roam, suggests Cross, looking for ways of exploiting its potential to gain competitive edge.
"We think it can stimulate ideas of where the business can go, and every time we talk to a customer we can see thought processes starting to kick in as to how they can take advantage of it," Silvester says.
But users need to prepare for the impact on their Web site from the vastly increased exposure that .net is likely to bring, Cross warns, as well as ensuring they can follow up the faster contacts from suppliers and partners.
An ever-present concern is that Microsoft will try to use .net to exert the same kind of control over the Internet as it held over PC operating systems. Cross downplays this, saying that no single application will be branded as .net and that .net services will work with non-Microsoft systems. Other firms will adopt similar approaches, he adds.
The effect of .net on the fortunes of Microsoft itself is uncertain. Damaging litigation, a slowing PC market and a 60% share price fall are all signs of decline that will not be instantly arrested by the promise of results in years to come.
Observers point to the unrivalled credibility and muscle that the firm can bring to the new technology. And if the early adopters' enthusiasm catches on, it may be justified in its claims for .net, whether or not it proves to be the ultimate beneficiary.
How do I get a taste of .net?
Case study: Medexonline finds .net more flexible
Medexonline is a new healthcare procurement site that offers hospital trusts significant savings in the purchase of medical supplies. It adopted Microsoft's .net platform through its relationship with KPMG Consulting, having struggled with conventional solutions.
"These companies claimed their systems would work out-of-the-box, but it just wasn't true," says Darren James, senior vice-president of technology. "Some of them had hefty price tags of up to $2.5m, and even then you would have to spend comparable sums amending the systems to fit your industry."
KPMG's solution uses Commerce Server as the engine and SQL Server as the database, with Biztalk providing integration into the existing infrastructure. The use of templates and a flexible object model will provide a plug-and-play capability for future activities.
Links between the commerce and community applications mean that the site will understand the profile of the user and dynamically promote relevant products. "For instance, if you search for 'syringe', it will bring up not just product information but anything else on the topic from news and discussion groups, which is very difficult to do with those heavy Java-based applications," James says.
Initially there was some scepticism from the company's IT experts when the idea of using .net was first proposed, recalls CEO Sean Flanagan.
"In the event we found that not only is Windows 2000 much more robust than NT, but that the .net platform is extremely flexible in terms of development and speed to market," he says. "It is also very cost effective compared to other platforms and in the health sector that is very important."
What people are saying about .net
Microsoft chairman and chief software architect, launching .net in June 2000
"Microsoft's success has always come from giving developers something they could build on. Here with the .net platform we've given them very rich building blocks that will allow for a new generation of applications. They'll combine the best of Web sites, and today's productivity applications, into something that's a breakthrough.
"When people use the .net platform all of their information will be automatically available. They won't have to move it around between different devices, they'll simply log in and it'll be there."
Chairman, The Research Group
"Microsoft's greatest challenge lies in taking .net, which is ostensibly a vision, into a deliverable and tangible reality. Many would say it represents the company's cleverest use yet of Plasticene and smoked mirrors.
"I would argue that the vision itself represents a whole range of new opportunities for the Internet. But the final question is whether what Microsoft is attempting to achieve with .net will echo the efforts it made to dominate the operating system of the last decade."
Chief executive, Technical Infrastructure Forum, www.tif.co.uk
"For larger organisations generating an improved Internet is a vital precursor to freer trading. Microsoft has a powerful reputation as an originator and visionary, but the cost to larger organisations has historically been very high in terms of licensing, support and maintenance charges.
"Provided the technology is open end-to-end, IT's virtual world will welcome the imposition of standards on the Web. But a worry is that IT's greatest visionary and strategist is just playing catch-up to compensate for its late adoption of the Internet, unravelling the Web mystery in its own good time and to its own agenda."
Timetable for roll-out and key features of .net
Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer and chairmain Bill Gates launch .net at Forum 2000
.net Enterprise servers become available, followed by beta versions of Visual Studio .net and .net Framework development tools, providing the basis for new applications
Second quarter 2001
New versions of Windows expected, facilitating development of .net
Microsoft .net services to come on stream, named as Passport .net (user authorisation system), speech recognition and Tablet PC