Other analysts speaking at Gartner's annual Windows conference extinguished much of the hype surrounding what they called a "remarkably confusing" marketing blitz around .Net, a broad project through which Microsoft hopes to provide tools, software and services that will help turn the Internet into a giant network for delivering applications and services to all kinds of devices from PCs to mobile phones.
With Microsoft facing a number of potential speed bumps ranging from increased competition to the outcome of its antitrust appeal, Gartner warned information technology managers not to expect its Web services model to become a reality too soon - they used the term "vapourware" as often as they did "visionary".
However, analysts did say that as a world of Web services inches nearer, Microsoft will have many important product releases - as well as changes to its business structure - that IT managers using Microsoft products should prepare for.
Gartner offered a projected time line of Microsoft's evolution to Web-based computing, one that fills in many of the gaps in the .Net strategy. Much of its success hinges on Microsoft's ability to attract support from other large IT industry players and to deliver on its product roadmap.
"This is, fundamentally, a brand new platform," said Gartner analyst Mark Driver, adding that the migration to .Net appears more drastic than the switch from MS-DOS to Windows. "This is the tiger changing its stripes."
Following Microsoft's initial unveiling of .Net last year, the company launched its first products under the .Net brand with its latest line of enterprise servers, including BizTalk Server and SQL Server. This release confused many customers, Gartner analysts said, since few of the features promised with .Net were available in those products. Only when Microsoft releases a beta version of Visual Studio.Net will the concept of developing applications for a Web-based platform using its favoured developer technologies -- SOAP (simple object access protocol) and XML (extensible markup language) -- will begin to take shape.
The release of the desktop software suite Office XP on 31 May, which will be followed later this year by the Windows XP desktop operating system, also point toward some progress for .Net, Gartner analysts said. Still, these releases offer only small pieces of what Microsoft has promised its .Net effort. On the server side, Windows 2002, slated for release six months after Windows XP, will be a "minor release" for enterprise customers, Gartner's Bittman notes.
It won't be until 2003 or beyond that the first operating system really tied into the .Net framework will reach consumers and business customers. Known today by its codename, "Blackcomb," Microsoft has alluded to a launch of this new operating system and software for sometime in late 2003.
"This is where things get really fuzzy," said Neil MacDonald, a Gartner analyst covering Microsoft. "Blackcomb is basically the bucket for everything that doesn't get into XP."
Making predictions for that far ahead is difficult since Microsoft's .Net framework has yet to gain widespread backing from other IT hardware and software vendors, something that Sun Microsystems already has achieved with its Java language, which will compete with .Net for the attention of developers.
Driver said the migration to .Net will be a difficult one for IT departments because it represents such a major shift from the current Microsoft platforms. For instance, developers will have to rewrite as much as 60% of the code for some existing Windows applications if they want them to take advantage of Microsoft's .Net platform, Gartner analysts predicted. That's a frightening prospect for companies who are switching to Windows 2000, or for those who still run Windows 98 and NT.
"There are so many people on these (earlier) platforms," MacDonald said. "Given the relatively slow adoption of Windows 2000, the last thing Microsoft should do is start giving out the message 'we've got this great thing coming and, by the way, you have to wait until Windows XP to get it.' That would be a huge tactical error."