How about an alternative to Microsoft .NET?

Web services may well be the future, but the arguments don't end there...

Web services may well be the future, but the arguments don't end there...

Microsoft's .NET initiative may promise to be at the centre of how we will use the internet and many other applications, but equally it means a huge leap for Bill Gates, betting his business on a vision of joined-up web services. In the final part of his investigation, Joey Gardiner pits .NET against the alternatives. February 2001 saw the launch of Sun Microsystems' web services vision called Open Network Environment, or Sun ONE for short. At its unveiling Sun CEO Scott McNealy wasn't shy about heating up the winter chill with some pointed barbs in the direction of his Redmond rival. In typical unforgiving style, McNealy said Sun has a more comprehensive vision of web services than Microsoft, and one that is deliverable straight away. Whatever the truth, one thing is clear - Sun knows it has to define itself against what Microsoft has already announced if it wants to talk about web services. Sun was just the last in a line of vendors - including HP, IBM, and Oracle, as well as the open source community - to bring forward a web services strategy. However, none of these strategies have quite the ambition of Microsoft's. Given that joined-up web services are apparently something we want, is anyone really going to rival the lead Microsoft has taken? First, when considering the rival offerings, remember these innovations are about driving revenues for their respective companies, so the 'vision' is always heavily slanted by what the company already knows how to sell. Microsoft's .NET vision is all about driving sales of Windows, and is to some extent reliant on proving the OS robust enough to compete in the datacentre. It will also cement its impressive footing (via MSN) in the web content arena, increasingly tying customers into a dependency on Microsoft on the internet to match the one it already has on the desktop. Sun on the other hand doesn't care about the operating system, but wants an accelerated use of Java applications to increase sales of Solaris-based servers and its iPlanet application server software. That's not quite what Sun will tell you of course. Guy Norgrove, EMEA director of iPlanet - Sun's software alliance with AOL - says Sun ONE is all about software: "The ambition behind ONE is not only for a more comprehensive [software] vision than Microsoft's." Yet he won't be drawn on how much of Sun's future business will be selling Sun ONE software, rather than selling hardware. As ever Sun is cautious about over-committing itself to software. Again, IBM would quite like to increase use of its servers, databases and particularly Websphere, but as long as they're implemented through IBM Global Services it is not that fussy. This contrasts with Microsoft's vision which - while relying on some basic, pretty universal standards like SOAP and XML - is the only one that aims to own the whole process. The .NET ambition is to own the operating system, the programming language (C#), the development platform (VisualStudio .NET), the applications, the data and the end consumer. iPlanet's Norgrove thinks this is just too much. "Microsoft is looking at trying to get every piece of a very large pie. They are trying to control who does business with who - it's a very insidious approach," he said. Sun's idea is to provide the servers - development platform (J2EE) - some basic web services and just let businesses and software companies develop the applications on top of them. It wants to own less of the process. And the other vendors have similar plans, based around providing a back end platform for Java applications. Duncan Johnston-Watt, MD of Enigmatec, which provides Java solutions for the finance industry, reckons the world will have to decide between the two camps: "In the arena of web services it will come down to .NET versus Java, the open standard. I think people will see that .NET is Microsoft's attempt to monopolise the internet like they have the desktop," he said. But technology decisions aren't and shouldn't be led by religious views on particular vendors' behaviour. Finance directors won't care whether Microsoft has monopolistic intentions if the software works. Who succeeds boils down to one simple question - do the users and providers of web services want the freedom plus expense of building their own web services, or do they want Microsoft to do that for them? If users are willing to do some work then the open source community could be perfectly placed to deliver a framework for web services. The community has, somewhat ironically, had its enthusiasm fired by the possibilities inherent in Microsoft's C# programming language. Ximian, the open source development group led by Miguel D'Icaza, has dedicated a team of people to the task under the project name Mono. Ximian wants to work with Microsoft on it and open the .NET framework up to different operating systems. To put it another way they want all the benefits of Microsoft's technology minus the cost and the vendor tie-in. Despite the potential of this, Dan Kuznetsky, VP of systems software research for analyst house IDC, is sceptical about its success: "When people are trying to use Microsoft's standards Microsoft have a game they play with them. It's called 'we win, you lose'. Ximian will have to expend so much energy just playing cat and mouse they'll have no resources left to add any value," he said. IDC's Kuznetsky thinks right or wrong Microsoft has the upper hand, by providing the path of least resistance, and feels the eventual winner will be the vendor with products out on the ground in large numbers first. "That's why Microsoft are putting .NET into XP, into IIS, everything - to get it out there," he added. And despite all of Sun's claims that its technology is already out there, Microsoft's relentless pushing of .NET has ensured it much higher mindshare. Also, other vendors' reliance on partners and end users to do a lot of the developing means Microsoft still has a chance to steal the show. It is clear that Microsoft does have competitors in this space - not least from the open source community - but the competitors are losing ground to the Redmond behemoth. Furthermore it is impossible to overestimate the significance of this battle. While Microsoft can't achieve the equivalent of its dominance on the desktop, its strategy undoubtedly aims to get them near as possible. And rest assured that if it does, exactly the same benefits and problems that Microsoft has given us over the years will be repeated.