With its usual pomp and circumstance, Microsoft has unveiled its vision of the internet future. In this Microsoft Utopia, Windows becomes part of the fabric of the online world using the company's .Net technology.
Five years after Microsoft told the world it had an internet strategy, the company will bid for ownership of the web at a time when hosted services and application service providers (ASPs) are all the rage.
The result of this build-up, formerly known as Next Generation Windows Services, is that Microsoft will roll out new development tools next year that effectively open websites to increased collaboration. Also, a new operating system will arrive, called Windows.Net.
This month, Bill Gates told a packed auditorium in Seattle that he is betting the company on .Net, and that every product the manufacturer develops will be affected by this internet revolution.
At the heart of this announcement is the Xtended Markup Language (XML) technology embraced by Microsoft as the way to handle all data in an online world. XML has become pervasive across Microsoft software and will take on the role of a data translation and modelling tool.
Steve Ballmer, chief executive of Microsoft, refers to XML as the lingua franca of the internet, because of the way data is handled across connected machines, improving enterprise application integration.
Here come the intelligent agents
If you dissect the .Net announcement, you will see a new interface, called the Improved User Experience, heralding the arrival of intelligent and intuitive information agents for desktop PCs, servers and a range of devices; a new operating system; many new server applications; and an array of anticipated third-party hosted services.
.Net fleshed out the road map with XML-enhanced versions of SQL Server, Exchange Server and just about everything shipped by Microsoft. The Office productivity suite will be re-launched as an online service, in the form of Office.Net, although first Microsoft will ship an XML-upgraded version of Office later this year.
But not all parties in Seattle were convinced. Ian Brown, research director at analyst Gartner, said: "Making your websites programmatically available is interesting, but just what IT people inside large corporates will think of that as an idea remains to be seen."
Microsoft's .Net strategy has a long way to go, probably two to three years, before we know if it is a success. Meanwhile, we can expect development tools within the year, along with many XML-enabled versions of applications and operating systems. Windows Millennium Edition, the new consumer operating system to replace Windows 98, is a step in the right direction.
This is Microsoft's stake in the ground, and shows us what Gates thinks the future of the internet is all about.
- Pretenders to the .Net throne
IBM is a major supporter of Microsoft technologies on many levels. The recent deal to help define the SOAP protocol for extending XML's reach across non-Windows platforms shows the mixed relationship the two vendors share. But IBM does compete with Microsoft.
Sun Microsystems, on the other hand, will always be a rival. More or less a hardware vendor, Sun has a robust online strategy, with its Solaris Unix operating system.
Like Sun, database vendor Oracle often seems obsessed with beating Microsoft. The company has much to lose if Microsoft suddenly finds its feet in the large database arena. That said, it has an internet message and road map for applications and databases.
The AOL/Netscape-Time Warner giant has its own plans for the internet, but its ability to compete against .Net when it arrives is questionable.
Java could be the true technology for the internet to achieve its next great leap forward. Microsoft clearly dislikes Java, but XML's arrival now seems to give the software giant a stick with which it hopes it might beat its rival.
A firm favourite in the internet world is the Open Source Linux, which is used as a front-end HTTP server operating system by many people.
Although its reach is currently small compared with Microsoft's, demand for Linux and the strength of the operating system is staggering.
- .Net could mean curtains for Windows
.Net User Experience involves a new set of technologies that will be used to build a eeb interface, along with natural language and speech recognition interfaces.
Microsoft talks up the Universal Canvas, an XML-based workplace that does away with the concept of an operating system and browser, such as Windows, offering instead the concept of a eeb workplace within which a user or company runs everything.
.Net infrastructure and tools could allow Microsoft to flex the muscles of Visual Studio 7.0 for its ability to create new eeb services and applications that Microsoft is talking about. Visual Studio 7.0 is in beta now and will be shipped within a year, along with the BizTalk Orchestration Tool, designed to simplify the work of business analysts and software analysis within large companies.
A problem area for Microsoft could well be .Net Building Blocks Services, although it will go some way to counter any problems by doing the work itself.
These 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. The vendor wants identity, notification and messaging, personalisation, storage, search, calendar, directory and software delivery made available across the internet.
Although not running .Net code, .Net device software will be able to interact with the .Net internet platform, using XML to parse information. Sources predict .Net clients for a host of devices such as PCs, Web TVs, games consoles and new wireless mobile phones.
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