Jane Wakefield: Microsoft's broadband renaissance

Will Microsoft .NET lead us into a civilised renaissance of the digital world or drag us into a new dark age?
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

Change is afoot in the hallowed halls of Microsoft and, while unkind onlookers might say they are halls of mirrors, the software giant is determined to rebuild its shattered reputation following a full twelve rounds with the US department of justice.

Its attempt to suffocate the Internet with its software brought about its downfall in the first place. But it is to the Net that Microsoft now looks to set in motion Part II of its strategy for world domination (sorry, expansion of its world-renowned brand).

So, earlier this month, Microsoft presented us with Microsoft.NET, a clumsy moniker for the company's next generation of Web-based software. This will, apparently, bring about software development renaissance and transform the whole Internet experience for one and all. Microsoft is long overdue a renaissance in PR terms, but this latest piece of hyperbole just puts me in mind of techies mincing around in wigs and pantaloons to the sound of harpsichord music.

Lord Gates: "Sire, hast thou got the latest version of Net-enabled Windows?"

Sir Ballmer: "Oh verily, it is helping me provide a riche Internet user experience."

Developers not so keen on Microsoft's software have said the .NET strategy is wishy washy, full to bursting with corporate soundbites but as Renaissance man Skaespeare wrote four hundred years ago... "signifying nothing".

Microsoft.NET is, Microsoft itself admits, a vision rather than a concrete idea (strange how the bigger you get in Internet land the more you are allowed to replace solid business ideas with visions) but behind the hype the firm is taking one of the biggest gambles it has ever taken -- renting its software.

Taking software out of the box and onto the Net is untested and, while it could earn it another headline-grabbing fortune it might just as easily turn out to be the biggest mistake it ever made. Although credit where credit is due -- being late to the Internet party we should at least congratulate Mr Gates et al on leading the vanguard on this particular idea.

As Microsoft prepares to become a global version of BlockBusters (with the obvious exception that the prospect of renting Excel is not quite as exciting as the latest Hollywood blockbuster -- and you don't get popcorn) the question is will people buy it -- or, as I should say, rent it?

Rentable software, where businesses or individuals mix and match applications they need and pay for them on a monthly basis -- rather than buying it outright -- sounds kind of enticing. For one thing you no longer have the headache and responsibility of being your own IT manager as all the data is stored remotely by an ASP.

Cost will obviously be an important factor and those following the ASP market (about three at the last count) will be eagerly awaiting Microsoft's announcement -- due Friday at its developers' conference in Orlando -- on how much it will actually cost.

But perhaps the most crucial factor to the success or otherwise of Microsoft's software-to-rent idea will be the Internet itself. The vision will only become reality in a fully up and running broadband world where we all have fat pipes pumping data into our houses and offices 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

And so it will come as no surprise to find that Microsoft is keen to push along the development of the said broadband revolution, cementing this commitment by taking over a chunk of the UK cable company Telewest (quote: TWT) Wednesday.

There are two versions to the Telewest story. The EC was wary enough of Microsoft sniffing around the cable firm to mount an enquiry into the proposed deal. The majority share Microsoft would have had was reduced to a stake of 23 percent -- an amount that Microsoft claims is all it ever wanted.

Now, I am no wheeler dealer, and the idea of sitting in a board room and discussing mergers, acquisitions and equity stakes is not something that has ever been high on my list of things to do but even I can see that no-one in their right mind would prefer to have a minority rather than majority stake.

Sometimes I wish Microsoft would -- just for once -- come out from behind its Web of spin and tell things like it is. Take a lesson from Tony Blair, spin may look good but, like real candyfloss, there is no guarantee that it will taste good to others. Microsoft, corporate master of spin, has increasingly been leaving a nasty taste in the mouth as people wise up to the fact that half the words it uses in its press releases mean absolutely nothing.

If only Steve Ballmer would stand up at a conference and admit that the paperclip man who pops up in Word every time you try to write a letter is immensely annoying and that he -- like the rest of us -- has told it to piss off and let him get on with writing his letter. If only Bill Gates would say that he sometimes finds the Internet quite dull and uninspiring. If only the company would stop taking itself so goddamn seriously.

But it is not to be and Microsoft's vision of the broadband revolution is as overblown and hyped up as any of its previous ones. For me the most interesting part of Microsoft's latest adventure is the way it puts it head to head with that other empire builder BT.

In the race to bring fat pipes of multimedia, video-rich Internet services to the British public the two are jostling for first place as the telco rushes to equip the nation with broadband via ADSL and Microsoft puts its own stake on the cable companies. And with cable companies equalling telly and the Brits liking nothing more than slumping on the sofa with a beer in front of Coronation Street, I think BT might find itself beaten to the wire by Microsoft.

Or maybe the two will realise that they have a lot in common -- megalomania, a fondness for profit and a disregard for customers -- and, heaven forbid, join forces. This presents to me a nightmare vision of an older Bill Gates and Peter Bonfield sitting together on a verandah somewhere -- like the Old Gits from Harry Enfield -- and reminiscing on the early days of the Internet.

While Bonfield smiles at the fortune he made from his hyperlink patent, Gates congratulates himself on fighting and winning the mighty broadband antitrust trial.

In the old days, the dark ages came before the Renaissance. In Microsoft's planned renaissance it may just be that history reverses itself.

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