Microsoft bunts to first amid NOISE

With "friction-free client," Microsoft's Steve Ballmer has broken the years-long batting slump of his company's prolific phrase factory. For once, we have a slogan that describes a benefit to the user, rather than a specific technical approach.

With "friction-free client," Microsoft's Steve Ballmer has broken the years-long batting slump of his company's prolific phrase factory. For once, we have a slogan that describes a benefit to the user, rather than a specific technical approach.

Ballmer and Microsoft vice president Paul Maritz were the leadoff hitters at last week's opening game, so to speak, in what has become an annual fall contest between Microsoft and NOISE (Netscape/AOL, Oracle, IBM, Sun and Everyone else). In the previous week, Sun pitched the thinnest imaginable client, the nothing-but-pixel-processing Sun Ray; IBM, on the same day as Microsoft's Monday-morning briefing, strode to the plate with a diverse lineup of 64-bit Unix servers in an effort to displace Sun as the leader in that lucrative niche.

But Microsoft may have caught both IBM and Sun off-guard with Ballmer's well-placed bunt, as he and Maritz articulated a strategy of accommodating every class of client and server device while giving control of the Web back to the consumers of its resources. Within Microsoft environments ranging from end-user Outlook to lightweight-code Visual Basic, product developers at Microsoft's San Francisco event demonstrated a new fluidity in repackaging information to meet individual or enterprise needs.

"The PC and the Internet are the fundamental technologies," Ballmer asserted, dismissing the idea that people don't want local processing and storage. A Microsoft manager, Mike Risse, echoed that idea, saying that notebook PC makers are obviously making something that people want to use: "When the doubling rate in notebook PC sales slows down, I'll pay attention," Risse added.

The point, said Ballmer and Maritz, is not that the client should be thick or thin: The point is that the code you need to be run should be available in the form and on the platform that suits your immediate situation. "There will be times," Ballmer said, "when you don't have bandwidth, when you don't have a screen. So I'll be able to send you a bit of semantics: You'll ask for what you want."

Perhaps anticipating accusations of an "embrace and extend" approach that co-opts standards, Microsoft's announcements promised continued openness of the Internet. "People don't have to buy into our programming infrastructure," Maritz said. The future of COM objects, he said, is one of interaction via XML-based messages, sent via HTTP over TCP-based networks, and anyone will be able to hook into this standards-based arrangement.

Maritz asserted, in particular, that Microsoft's approach is more accommodating of diverse legacy technologies than is Sun's vision of Jini protocols supported by ubiquitous deployment of Java run-time environments that need parallel upgrades.

The Web, Ballmer said, is entering a developer-intensive third generation: moving from its connectivity phase, accessible to few, through the current presentation phase of static or dynamically generated pages, to enter a programmability phase in which XML unleashes a rich variety of services. "It's in our genetic material," he continued, "to serve the community of professional application writers," among whom he claimed a 91 percent concentration on the Windows platform.

What kind of client device would you use if it could get you the services you want? Tell me at peter_coffee@zd.com.

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