While open-source developers scurry to bring .net tools to Linux and, next in line, Apple Computer's Mac OS X, Microsoft has been busy developing an alternative version of its .net building blocks to run on a version of the Unix operating system. Some experts suggest these efforts could lead to a heterogeneous system for delivering software and services over the Internet, with Microsoft's technology at the core.
Following Microsoft's $135m (£94m) investment in software maker Corel in October 2000, the two companies set off to build an implementation of Microsoft's .net programming tools that will allow developers to build XML Web services, based on Microsoft technology, for a non-Windows operating system.
"Initially, they wanted us to help them port it to Linux," Derek Burney, president and chief executive officer of Corel said, referring to a contract Microsoft signed with Corel at the time of its investment. But as Microsoft heated up its verbal assault on Linux, and more directly on the software licence that protects it, called the GNU GPL (General Public License), Microsoft made an about-face on its decision to port to Linux.
"The licensing terms of the GPL were simply not acceptable to them," Burney said.
Looking to prove that .net could be ported to a competing operating system, Microsoft in June ordered Corel to instead implement the .net building blocks on FreeBSD, a free version of the sturdy Unix operating system based on code originally developed at the University of California at Berkeley.
"We didn't care, because at that point we were just hired guns," Burney said.
Just a week after Microsoft abandoned its Linux plans for .net, a similar project called Mono was launched to port the .net building blocks to the open-source operating system. The lead work comes from Linux software maker Ximian whose chief technical officer, Miguel de Icaza, said that only a few key pieces of technology need to be completed before it recreates .net for Linux.
"We're just waiting to hear from Microsoft on the licensing details," de Icaza said. Although the open source developers working on the Mono project are optimistic that Microsoft will offer pieces of its code as an open-source contributions to the project, Microsoft's contributions more probably entail paying royalties, he said.
The implementation under development at Corel will be licensed under Microsoft's "shared source" philosophy, which says developers can see it and make changes to it, but not use it for commercial purposes, according to Tony Goodhew, a Microsoft product manager. Mainly, it will prove that the underlying technology in the .net building blocks, called CLI (Common Language Infrastructure) - which recently won approval from a European standards board - can facilitate a cross-platform .net, Goodhew said.
"It's a validation that these standards are true," he said.
However, it also has the potential to make .net truly a cross-platform technology. After all, FreeBSD is not only a well-regarded flavor of Unix - resembling systems such as Sun Microsystems.'s Solaris - it is also the basis of Apple's latest operating system, Mac OS X. Porting .net to either of these other systems would be "a trivial exercise," according to Ximian's de Icaza.
Does that mean .net for Mac?
"That is one possibility, isn't it?" said Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst with IDC.
According to de Icaza, the Mono project has already considered porting the .net tools to the Mac. "We're planning on supporting Mac OS X as soon as we're done with the Linux port," he said.
Corel, which has deployed 20 of its engineers to build the FreeBSD version of the .net framework, would also be a likely candidate to create .net tools for the Mac operating system, as it is a close partner of both Microsoft and Apple.
"It's a possibility," Burney said of the idea. "But I ultimately think it's in Microsoft's best interest to do it on its own."
Microsoft's Goodhew says there are no plans "at this stage" to make a Mac .net at Microsoft. He did note, in an apparent reference to Apple's new flat-panel iMac computer, "If I was a company that was building a set of fashionable machines on a FreeBSD platform, I might think about doing it."
This was first published in January 2002