Two weeks ago, Bill Gates told an audience in Taiwan that the software giant would spend three times more than the price of putting a man on the Moon on its Next Generation Windows Services (NGWS).
Since his company has $21bn in the bank, no one doubts the hyperbole. The question is: will this be as expensive and ultimately fruitless an exercise in ego as Apollo proved to be for the US government?
Last week Microsoft duly launched NGWS with much pomp and ceremony, under its new name .Net, as its latest version of the future of the internet. Yes, it's going to revolve around Windows again, the US Justice Department notwithstanding.
Microsoft will roll out development tools next year, including C# (C sharp), a new programming language to compete with Java, aimed at opening up websites for increased collaboration. There will also be a new operating system, Windows.Net.
Gates, chairman and now chief software architect at Microsoft, told a packed auditorium in Seattle on 23 June that he's "betting the company" on .Net, and that "there is not a product the company develops" that won't be affected by the internet revolution.
At the heart of Microsoft's latest take on folding its technology into the internet is eXtensible markup language (XML) technology, now embraced by Microsoft as the way for handling data in an online world. XML support has now become ubiquitous across Microsoft's range of software, and in time it will take on the role of a data translation and modelling tool.
Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer believes XML is the lingua franca of the internet, a way for data to be passed across connected machines, allowing the "ultimate in enterprise application integration".
.Net is Microsoft's attempt to convince the IT industry that it has a logical roadmap of technologies that will put it squarely at the heart of the web's next phase of growth. Building on claims that Windows 2000 is a platform on which to assemble ecommerce applications, the .Net strategy will lead to XML-enhanced versions of SQL Server, Exchange Server, and just about everything else in the Microsoft brochure.
One product that will be significantly affected is the Office productivity suite, to be totally relaunched as an online service in the form of Office.Net. Microsoft will ship an XML-upgraded version of Office later this year.
Analyst reaction was mixed. "It's going to be interesting to see just how Microsoft helps the world manage all of the .Net stuff," said Gartner research director Ian Brown. "Making your websites programmatically available is an interesting idea, but just what IT people inside large organisations will think of that as an idea remains to be seen."
The .Net strategy has a long way to go before full delivery, probably two to three years. For now, expect to see development tools, especially C#, rolling out within the next 12 months, along with many XML-updated versions of applications and operating systems.
This is Microsoft's stake in the ground, and a peek at what Gates thinks the future of the internet is all about. The gamble the firm is taking is that it can stitch together its proprietary products and the internet so tightly they can not be unpicked. What remains to be seen is who, if anyone, will come along and pull that stake out of the ground.
Given that the strategy is going ahead despite the suggestion that its parent will be splitting into two firms, that job may fall to the US government once again.
.Net at a glance
- .Net User Experience A new set of technologies that will be used to build a more intuitive web interface, along with natural language and speech recognition interfaces. Microsoft is offering the Universal Canvas, an XML-based workplace that does away with the concept of an operating system and browser.
- .Net Infrastructure and Tools Tools are where Microsoft does some of its best work. Look to Visual Studio 7 for the ability to create the new web services and applications that Microsoft talks about. VS7 is in beta now and will ship within a year, along with an application called the BizTalk Orchestration Tool. This is designed to simplify the work of business software analysts within large companies.
- .Net Building Block Services This could well be a problem area for Microsoft, although it will go some way to counter any problems by doing the work itself. What we have here are a set of hosted, programmable internet services that websites can access and make programmatically available. Expect to see Microsoft open up Passport, MSN Hotmail, MSN Messenger and MSN Communities. Microsoft wants to see things such as identity, notification and messaging, personalisation, storage, calendar, directory, search and software delivery made available across the internet.
- .Net Device Software Although devices not running Microsoft's .Net code will be able to interact with the .Net internet platform using XML to parse information, Microsoft says the richest experience will come from devices running a .Net-based client. So expect to see .Net clients hardware such as PCs, TVs, mobile phones and games consoles.
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