Is Microsoft's .net strategy too vague?

Microsoft's .net strategy spells the end of its affiliation with Java. Cliff Saran reports on the initiative that could take as long as Windows to really get going

In 1985 Microsoft announced the first version of Windows. It took five years for Windows 3.0, the first useable release, to appear in 1990. Ten years later, Microsoft seems to be doing it all again.

Last week Microsoft unveiled an all-encompassing strategy, dubbed .net, in which the software giant plans to make the Internet fully interactive by providing far closer links to enterprise systems than is currently possible. A suite of development tools for the .net platform is expected to be launched in two weeks time at the Professional Developers Conference in Florida. The full vision is not expected for another two years.

Speaking at the Forum 2000 event in Seattle last week, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates compared the Internet user experience to the way a user operates a dumb terminal. He said a user today deals with islands of unconnected information. Microsoft's strategy is to provide a single point of access to any form of information whether it is online or offline.

At the heart of this strategy is a radical shift in the way software is used - from a licence-based model to a subscription one.

The .net initiative involves applications and services running across the Internet or between business partners over an extranet. Microsoft envisages seamless access to information to conduct a business process. For example, people with private health insurance could book appointments to see a doctor and recover costs from their insurers within the same system, using Web-based components such as calendars and insurance calculators.

Gates said the natural user interface for .net will be based on Extensible Mark-up Language (XML). "Databases, spreadsheets and programming languages will all change to support XML," he added.

In .net, information is exchanged using software component technology called Simple Object Application Protocol (Soap). Based on XML, Microsoft says Soap can be used by business partners to link their applications together. So in the case of the health insurance system, the insurance company could use Soap to provide a business component to authorise payment for a visit to the doctor. The GP's calendar could be available online, allowing an appointment to be made.

The .net announcement spells the end of Microsoft's marriage of convenience with Java. Embroiled in a legal battle with Sun Microsystems over a breach of contract that Microsoft may well lose, the Seattle firm has made Java irrelevant in the .net strategy. "Unlike Java, Soap can work with software that users run today, so it is not necessary to rewrite everything in a different programming language," said Gates.

Initially, Microsoft will use Visual Basic to push .net into the developer community. During the Professional Developers Conference on 11 July, it will introduce a beta release of Visual Studio.net, the latest version of its development tools suite. This will include a version of Visual Basic which supports .net development using Soap.

Microsoft is also introducing a rival language to Java, called C# based on the C and C++ programming languages. Like Java (and Visual Basic), this uses a virtual machine to interpret and run application software.

Gartner research director Ian Brown believes the approach to software services Microsoft is adopting is analogous to component integration and a common language for business processes. Existing technology, such as Common Object Request Broker Architecture, does not always work, Brown noted.

Microsoft has coined yet more buzzwords for its .net strategy, including smart tags, which recognise words such as a company name being used in an e-mail message. By clicking on the smart tag, the user can browse the company's Web site. Other features include a table in a document in which spreadsheet formulae can be used.

The Windows user interface is also set to change into what Microsoft describes as the Universal Canvas, based on the Web browser user interface. Microsoft said it would provide a way to link speech interfaces into the Universal Canvas.

For .net to be successful, mobile and secure, the technology requirements are staggering: broadband networking, the pervasive use of smartcards and biometrics, and wireless access via third generation mobile networks. All of which means .net, like Windows, will take a while to get off the ground.

What Microsoft has planned for .net

  • Software components such as the Microsoft Passport login from Hotmail are already available

  • 11 July 2000: the first beta of Visual Studio.net will provide software developers with a way to start building and using .net services

  • 2001: Microsoft will launch version 1.0 of Windows.net, an update to the Windows operating system, providing limited access to .net services

  • By 2002: Microsoft plans to introduce .net versions of its Office productivity and development tools suites

  • By 2002: a server-based version of Windows.net is expected

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