The .Net strategy is the 'fourth age' of Microsoft's development, according to Oliver Roll, director of enterprise marketing at the software giant. "We started out on the microprocessor. The second move was to make computing easier with Windows. The third was the internet. Just as Windows has become the platform for the PC, the internet needs a platform for people to start taking on-board real services. .Net is that platform," he says.
The .Net strategy is all about making the internet a two-way, interactive medium for business users and consumers. Microsoft claims that at present, it is nowhere near this goal.
"We think of the internet today as a one-way street. It is not intelligent enough to tell who you are as an individual and what your preferences are. .Net is all about creating a net that is connected, and providing services that are very intelligent and anticipate what individuals want," says Roll.
Microsoft will also try to connect sites through .Net. It wants to turn it into a super-portal. "What if the internet understood and knew what you wanted to do and who you were, found the websites you needed to go to, collated that information and brought it back to you? That sounds great to me," says Roll.
This might seem like a tall order, but Microsoft is not expecting to do it on its own. And this is where third parties come in because, above all, .Net is about creating a development platform.
"The biggest thing missing from the internet today is a single programming model," says Roll. "There isn't a standard for developers to write services on the internet. .Net is about creating a platform for developers that enables them to make the internet easier by putting all kinds of technologies into the services and delivering them to new devices such as the pocket PC or the mobile phone."
Free to roam
By creating .Net as a platform, claims Microsoft, third parties will be able to develop interactive web-based applications. It is an attempt to create a platform for those applications that standardise access rights and provide tools for developers to use the back-end database through the open wide area network (Wan).
Microsoft calls it an "any time, any place, anywhere" approach. The vendor also wants to bring in new devices that are being talked about so much: Wap phones, pocket PCs and set-top devices. What this means - in theory at least - is a totally-free roaming profile for every user.
However, Roll stresses that .Net is not some kind of ASP (application service provider), but it may act as a platform for that type of service and the vendor may make Office and other products available through .Net services one day. It will, however, take the ASP concept one step further, enabling the integration of hosted applications with others - whether they are hosted or not - and the customisation of those applications.
Roll says it is not an attempt to create a portal market such as mySAP.com either, although there will be intelligent information exchanges between different websites. "ASP is just a route to get our products to market," he says.
Microsoft is already working with ASP partners on certain products. "It's very difficult to pigeonhole it, and to say it is like mySAP or like a portal, because it is not. It's a platform for the internet creator, a development platform and a visibility platform."
In summary, the idea of Microsoft's .Net is to create links between all the information available, personalise it for the individual and make it interactive. Microsoft claims it wants the web to get information for you and save you the trouble of surfing, pulling it down the line and getting it into a format you can understand and use. To enable this to happen, applications need to be built, and to build the applications, you need a set of standards. The vendor says .Net will be the standard and the toolkit.
The .Net strategy will move Microsoft further in the direction it has already started to take with Windows DNA 2000 and much of .Net will be built on XML-based web Services. Visual Studio and Biztalk will also be used in the toolkit. Microsoft says .Net is "explicitly designed to allow the integration of any group of resources on the internet into a single solution".
This type of integration is complex and costly. Microsoft says the aim of .Net is to make integration intrinsic to all web software development, which sounds like there will be more of a requirement for development skill in the partner channel in the future. While this may be true in the short term, there will be a need for a variety of skills when .Net becomes the mainstay of the Microsoft offering.
The requirement for third-party market and technology specialists to design, develop, implement and install solutions will continue. But its partners will, of course, have to continually adapt and change with the market.
Microsoft is changing its approach to partners. The company has realigned its partner marketing and communications model so that there is one interface with the company. There is one number to call and one website to visit.
This is not directly linked to the .Net strategy, but the new approach will shape the way Microsoft deals with partners when .Net becomes a set of tangible products and services. And the web itself will play a key role in communications.
Finding the right partner
Stephen Uden, head of partner marketing at Microsoft, says the new model should make it a lot easier for partners to work with Microsoft. Essentially, Microsoft has unified all of its partner teams. Previously, there were a number of teams for different types of partner; now there is just one. Uden admits the old partner model had become outdated. It had started more than six years ago when all resellers were fairly similar.
But the picture is quite different today. "As we have grown, we have had to engage with different types of partners: internet service providers, independent service vendors, ASPs and many others. That meant that the partner teams had become a bit fragmented. We lacked co-ordination and integration and many partners did not fit any single category."
Partners with multiple activities found it hard to deal with Microsoft at times. A firm that was involved in the integration of systems and worked under the solutions provider programme, for example, might also have its own software that integrated with Microsoft products or ran under Windows. In such situations the partner would have been dealing with two or more separate Microsoft teams.
Now this cannot happen. The teams for the different partner programmes have been brought together and will work to meet the specific needs of partners, as defined by the partner, not by Microsoft. "All of the partner marketing is in one place. That means a single website, one set of events, one newsletter, one of everything," says Uden. "Hopefully, this will cut out all the confusion as there will only be one place to go."
At this stage at least, there will be no major changes to the type of accreditation that partners have with Microsoft. Resellers will remain part of the solution provider programme, direct access will continue, as will all other partner definitions. But to avoid pigeonholing, Microsoft is asking all its partners to define their needs though the new website.
Simply the best
"We are going to let them select the information they want. We will be asking partners to profile themselves on the website and we will then send information only to those people who are really interested. This is a very high priority for us and we realise it will take time," says Uden.
Microsoft says it will do all it can to encourage partners to put their details on the site and to use the service. Clearly, until all partners have provided their information, Microsoft will not get the best out of the processes, so this is an important part of the plan.
Ultimately, Microsoft wants to build personalisation of the web content into its online service for partners. This is also an aim of the .Net strategy, but this is some way off just yet, says Uden.
In addition to the out-bound filtering of information, Microsoft is trying to tackle the problem of incoming enquiries.
Uden concedes that partners have had difficulty in finding the right person to help them within the partner support framework at Microsoft.
The vendor is trying to address this by appointing a specific person to act as a medium for these enquiries. "Most enquiries are to do with a customer situation or a specific customer request and this individual will sit behind the helpline and deal with those situations. It is what we call 'opportunity-based partnering'," he says.
So when a partner has no specific account manager within Microsoft - and most do not have any such contact - there will be one person responsible for handling enquiries. This will extend to sales opportunities rather than any specific problem a customer might have.
Uden agrees it will be difficult to meet every partner's request for help with customer situations. Microsoft will provide sales support but will have to clearly define the criteria and circumstances under which it will become actively involved. Microsoft wants its partners to provide detailed information about what resources and support they really need. This will allow Microsoft to tailor the needs of the whole partner community.
"Step one is for partners to tell us what they are interested in. We also want resellers to sign up for the services that are available on the web, such as mission-critical support, and to use them. And if there's something they need and it is not there, we want them to tell us," says Uden.
Microsoft will be more open with its partners, Uden says. "We are obsessed by feedback and when we get it, we will tell you what we will be doing as a result. It's that kind of openness and honesty that we need to bring to all our channel communications."
If this approach is carried through with the .Net strategy, it may signal the beginning of a new kind of relationship between Microsoft and its partners, one that depends very much on co-existence. It is difficult to see how Microsoft can realistically expect to control the development of the internet as a medium, even if .Net is a great success. In the run-up to the roll out of .Net, Microsoft needs its partners more than ever.
Roll says: "For .Net to succeed, people will have to be creating .Net services, .Net technologies, .Net visibility technologies and devices. There will be training companies and services companies. The .Net model is based on partnership. It's a very open environment."
He believes .Net will create a wealth of opportunities for partners to deliver services, skills and applications. But we may not be able to see all of those opportunities with any clarity for some time. For the web as an applications and development platform, these are still early days. It will be 12 months before Microsoft produces anything tangible around .Net, and until then, the development work will go on behind the scenes.
"The .Net vision will take Microsoft and its partners a long way," says Roll. "But this year, the focus is on helping our customers to take advantage of the Windows 2000 platform."
However, Microsoft's partners should see the effects of a unified approach quite soon. It will take time for .Net to come to life and Microsoft is not in complete control of how that river flows. But the direction it eventually takes will affect every organisation in the IT industry.
It is encouraging that Microsoft has fully embraced the internet. In spite of recent dotcom failures, the internet is central to the development of the entire IT industry. While the .Net strategy may not be the finished article, it is a big step in the right direction.
- Of the five 'layers' to .Net, the first is the architecture, built mainly on XML and existing Windows DNA 2000 technology.
- The second layer relies heavily on XML and controls the means of interconnection between websites and content files.
- The third layer includes the .Net services that have yet to be built. But Microsoft has already said that there will be .Net services for Windows, MSN, Office, Visual Studio and bCentral. The first major release of Windows.net, code-named Whistler, is due in the second half of next year.
- A set of tools will also be available allowing third parties to create their own services. Over the next three years, Microsoft plans to invest up to $2bn (£1.4bn) to enable industry partners, independent developers and corporate IT developers to build Microsoft .Net services.
- The fourth layer is the interface. Microsoft says it wants to make .Net easy to use and developers to build-in natural technology such as handwriting and speech recognition.
- The fifth layer will provide operability on a range of devices such as pocket PCs and mobile phones.
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