The Internet has already had a dramatic impact on business, with companies constantly forced to rethink their strategies on how to handle an ever-expanding online world.
The next step is figuring out how application software will be created and distributed.
Take Microsoft as an example. Several years ago, it ignored the Internet, but now it is as online-savvy as the next company.,P> Neither has it been slow to revisit its Internet plans, resulting in what it now calls Windows 2000 Distributed interNet Architecture (See Newswire 14 September 1999), and a new server application called AppCenter.
AppCenter is seen by some parts of the industry as a move away from Microsoft's traditional software deployment model, moving instead towards the emerging application service providers (ASPs) model.
AppCenter is, at heart, a server application from Microsoft that acknowledges the Internet as being an 'acceptable' delivery mechanism for software, and therefore one to be embraced by developers.
The ASP approach, as defined by companies such as Sun Microsystems, IBM and Citrix, is that of a large central farm of servers holding applications to which online users will connect, over either traditional public switched telecommunications networks (PSTN), cable, or the Internet.
Users will then download, use, pay for and remove the applications from their computer.
This is not Microsoft's AppCenter approach, although at some point in the future it could assume such a role. But not at the moment, and certainly not with Microsoft's blessing.
DNA does the business
AppCenter, for want of a metaphor, is more the point at which the rubber meets the road in Microsoft's DNA architecture. DNA, or what Microsoft now calls Windows 2000 DNA, is Microsoft's view of the software world. More importantly, it is a view of a connected world.
DNA really hasn’t delivered much, despite all the talk. But given that Microsoft owns the desktop software world, and is winning plenty of new business in the server world, DNA is a serious contender.
But because the Internet breaks down barriers, and therefore breaks down monopolies, DNA is in no way a certain winner – other than with organisations that back Microsoft to the hilt.
With AppCenter, Microsoft is finally laying out its future plans for Windows software development and the Internet.
The Windows world needs a way of controlling the growing number of web servers – housed in server farms – that will become increasingly common in user IT infrastructures.
AppCenter will act as the delivery and management tool that IT staff can use to roll out applications created using the Microsoft common object model (Com) architecture.
It is thus a kind of support mechanism for companies that have embraced Com, a mechanism that can be used to better manage users accessing software from multiple servers in a reliable and scalable fashion.
Microsoft moves in mysterious ways
However, there are still a few mysterious aspects to AppCenter. For instance, one of the technologies at its heart is Com+ Load Balancing, which allows multiple servers within a server farm to operate together, with Com objects automatically scaled across multiple servers as and when performance demands occur.
But Com+ Load Balancing was meant to be a free component of the Windows 2000 operating system, which is currently in beta testing. Will this now mean that users will have to pay for this technology?
Microsoft UK was either ignorant of the issue, or unwilling to comment. The best it could muster was to say that Com+ Load Balancing will be available to beta testers of Windows 2000 'as and when' the RC2 (release candidate 2) version gets released.
Despite the fact that beta testers are set to see the beta code, it will be removed for insertion in AppCenter next summer – and then sold to customers.
Phil Cross, developer manager at Microsoft UK, defends the move by explaining that not all users want access to Load Balancing, which is why it has been removed from the base operating system.
An interesting spin: but does that mean that those users who do want it are going to be penalised and forced to pay for it? It appears so, given that it is now no longer a feature of the operating system.
Other vendors, as well as Microsoft, are looking at the whole ASP software model. Citrix, for so long a partner of Microsoft in the thin client arena, has fully backed the ASP bandwagon, and is pressing on with its own software development.
IBM also supports ASP as a way forward, although in true IBM style, it has placed bets on several horses in this race.
As a supplier, IBM is actually well-placed to take advantage of the ASP world. After all, this server-centric computing model needs manageability, reliability and scalability – disciplines IBM learned with mainframes and servers such as the AS/400.
Although there is still no love lost between IBM and Microsoft, Big Blue is backing Windows 2000 and plans to make plenty of money out of it, especially on the back of users trying to roll out Microsoft's Active Directory technology.
Therefore, as Microsoft makes Windows 2000 a web-hosting platform (just one of the many uses Microsoft has planned for it), IBM will be there to provide the hardware on which it runs.
Likewise, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard are now well-versed in running the Windows NT operating system on their hardware, and both will undoubtedly back whatever software model Bill Gates says is the future.
Sun, free and simple
Scott McNealy, the ebullient president of Sun, disagrees. He still views the software world as changing so fundamentally because of the Internet that he champions a whole new model for software: free, and from anywhere on the Internet.
Take, for example, software company Star Division. Bought by Sun on 31 August, Star Division makes an office application suite called StarOffice, comprising applications that run on Linux, Windows and Sun Solaris.
Sun's strategy is simple: give the software away, or charge a nominal fee of $9.95 for a CD. Even McNealy isn't arrogant enough to believe that this tactic will revolutionise the market, displacing Microsoft Office as the de facto tool business people use to create data.
Big companies have invested millions in Windows applications and are not ready to jump ship, at least not yet.
McNealy concedes that big business is the last place free software will triumph, but adds that schools and small businesses are a different kettle of fish. He is undeniably hoping at least some corporates will see it his way.
Software development and deployment is changing due to the Internet. But to conclude that Sun's model of 'give it away free' is inevitable would be naive, especially in the business world.
The whole concept remains a potential threat to Microsoft, and therefore one that the Seattle software giant must counter.
In the corporate world, Microsoft's answer appears to be one of 'give the right programming tools to the right people and the future will be rosy'. Microsoft's view is not so much 'put the applications on the web for use by people logging into websites', but rather 'bring the web to the software'.
By this, think of Microsoft trying to 'program' the web, and conceive of a software model in which everything you think the web can supply to you is available from within the software you use on a day-to-day basis.
Can both models – making Windows 'own' the web, or putting free software on the web so you don't need Windows – really co-exist?
If the market gets more competitive, Microsoft will be forced to adopt a lower pricing model for its software. And should McNealy's StarOffice succeed, companies will get at least some applications for free. The best thing about the Net is that, potentially, everyone can be a winner.
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