Microsoft asks users for .Net leap of faith

Microsoft has introduced a new technology strategy – .Net – that threatens to add uncertainty to the financing and development of large-scale corporate IT systems

As businesses are struggling to cope with maintaining legacy systems and implementing e-business strategies, Microsoft's .Net initiative raises questions over how manageable, stable and affordable future Microsoft systems will be, industry experts said.

The .Net strategy unveiled last week at Microsoft's delayed Forum 2000 event in Seattle would require a radical change in the way businesses license, develop and deploy software, in what Microsoft said was its most important strategy announcement for five years.

Within .Net, Microsoft sees software as a service - a component available online that business partners can connect to using the data language XML. It will use a platform-independent programming model called Soap to run software services on distributed computers.

However, once businesses start to rely on software distributed across the Net, it will make managing and maintaining software code onerously complex, according to Ian Brown, research director at consultancy Gartner. "Who takes ownership of [software services]? There are issues of support with [.Net service]."

With elements of enterprise software moving outside company control, hardware upgrades will become more difficult to predict. Analyst Mital Mehta at Tek Plus noted that Microsoft did not announce a hardware platform for .Net. He said it also did not address scalability, reliability and security.

David Roberts, director of user group the Technical Infrastructure Forum, warned that combining the complexity of enterprise software with the nascent Web infrastructure could be a dangerous strategy. "Software is unpredictable and the Web is very immature," Roberts said.

"The challenge to the IT industry is to make technology work," he added.

Microsoft's strategy will also rely on the arrival of a range of new and interdependent technologies, said Ashim Pal, Meta Group program director. "[.Net] is immensely complicated and requires broadband communications such as 3G, ADSL and broadband networks to succeed."

Although the strategy is deliverable, it could take up to 10 years before .Net is a reality, he said.

Microsoft also plans to revolutionise the way users pay for software. The supplier will move from desktop-based client-access licences to a subscription model, but has not detailed how firms will move from one to the other.

Microsoft president Steve Ballmer said, "We are betting on a transformation of the software industry to a service model."

Nick McGrath, Microsoft Windows product team manager, said some of the .Net building blocks for scalability, reliability and security already exist in Windows 2000.

On the question of complexity, McGrath said, "In the future, small business will use application service providers to integrate components; larger firms will use consultants, such as EDS, who will work closely with Microsoft."

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