Open-source firm casts its own .Net

Ximian, a Linux firm, plans a project called "Mono" which is scheduled to compete against .Net--legitimizing software as a service while challenging Microsoft.

Even as Microsoft touts the open availability of the underpinnings of its .Net initiative, open-source advocates are working to make sure .Net isn't a Microsoft-only technology.

Ximian, a Boston company that works on the Gnome user interface for Linux, is scheduled to announce Monday a software project called "Mono" intended to compete against Microsoft.Net, according to sources familiar with the plan.

The move, if successful, could increase the importance and popularity of the Microsoft.Net software-as-a-service strategy while undermining Microsoft's control over the software itself. But analysts caution that .Net is a nascent technology, and any attempts to clone it are likely to be even more immature.

Red Hat, the top seller of Linux and one of Microsoft's most ardent foes, declined to comment on Ximian's plans. But in an interview, chief technology officer Michael Tiemann expressed support for efforts to prevent Microsoft from gaining exclusive control over the computing world--as Red Hat has by backing the Gnome user interface and the Samba software that lets a Linux machine share files like a Windows computer.

"We're not about cloning systems for the sake of cloning; we're about making sure that the future of computing doesn't implode around a monopoly," Tiemann said.

Red Hat doesn't need to create a .Net alternative of its own, Tiemann said, "but I think we would be happy to support it in the way we've supported a lot of other initiatives to support choice."

Ximian declined to comment on the project, but in earlier interviews, chief technology officer Miguel de Icaza indicated his company's direction includes its own version of .Net. Last week, de Icaza said he's researched .Net extensively, likes it and believes having a version of .Net for Linux would be "good for Linux and Microsoft."

In February, de Icaza said his company's "long-term plans are along the lines of providing services for the Linux platform and integrating services into the desktop."

And in May, Ximian released SOUP, a version of software that's part of .Net and now also an industry standard.

Caldera International, another Linux seller, also is interested in producing a version of .Net for Linux, said Chief Technology Officer Drew Spencer. Because customers will inevitably use both .Net and Caldera software, it would be good to be able to mix the two on the same system. "We are very interested in wanting to...provide that kind of capability," Spencer said.

Major challenge
It's not surprising that the open-source movement--currently on the receiving end of a Microsoft campaign against the legal underpinnings of its shared programming methods--would "try to fight off the Microsoft cornering strategy," Technology Business Research analyst Bob Sutherland said. But he predicts any open-source alternative will be slow to catch on.

"I would guess that it would take several years before you're going to see sizable market development for it," he said.

Microsoft.Net is a broad strategy to offer services such as e-commerce and address books online, converting Microsoft's dominance in desktop computer software into dominance on the Internet as well. Microsoft.Net is built on foundations that are standard components, but .Net includes features beyond that standard. Microsoft hopes to make money by selling services--collected under the project name HailStorm--that are based on .Net.

While .Net is unquestionably a Microsoft project--executives say they've bet the company on the strategy--the general idea isn't unique to Microsoft. Others pursuing similar plans, loosely referred to under the term "Web services," include IBM, Sun Microsystems, Oracle and Hewlett-Packard.

Microsoft itself has no objection to widespread use of the foundations of .Net. Indeed, it's trying to foster that very outcome in several ways.

It's leading an effort by the standards group ECMA to make a standard version of software used to run Web services on any sort of computer. It's also backed an effort to create a version of that software for the FreeBSD version of Unix, so programmers and researchers can see how it works.

"We're releasing on FreeBSD, but there's nothing that stops (someone) from taking the source code and porting it to Linux," Tony Goodhew, the Microsoft product manager in charge of marketing the software, said in an interview. "What we want to do is standardize the technology required for somebody to build a platform that supports of XML Web services."

Microsoft also is backing the standardization of an alphabet soup of other Web services software. Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) lets different computers exchange data and commands described by Extensible Markup Language (XML). Web Services Description Language (WDSL) explains what a particular Web service can do. And Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI) indexes and finds Web services.

Secret goodies
But when Microsoft assembles these bits and pieces into .Net, it plans to offer higher-level features as well that won't be available for outside programmers to dissect. Among those technologies is ASP.Net, an update to Microsoft's Active Server Pages software for creating Web pages on demand, and ADO.Net, software for database access.

Moreover, though Microsoft says people will be able to tap into .Net Web services with a large number of devices, the company is striving to make sure that the best experience will be through its Windows operating system.

But open-source advocates don't trust Microsoft, citing its modified versions of standards such as the Kerberos method of authenticating a computer user's identity.

Bruce Perens, who helped formulate the definition of the term "open source" in 1998, is among the suspicious. For example, he said the standard version of .Net that Microsoft has submitted to ECMA includes a mechanism that lets the software tap into Windows-specific features.

"There's a little peephole into Windows (that lets a programmer) start calling Windows functions," he said. "They or anyone else can write programs that are not portable"--in other words, Web services that work only with Windows computers.

Passport to trouble?
Of more concern is the Passport software Microsoft uses to authenticate those who use its HailStorm services. "I think Passport...should simply be an open standard," Perens said. "It's much harder to clone a cryptographic mechanism."

"Cloning Passport would be difficult from a technical perspective, since we have not handed the technological specification for Passport off to anyone," acknowledged John Montgomery, Microsoft lead product manager for the .Net developer platform.

But Passport isn't mandatory for .Net Web services, he said. "Passport is one of many mechanisms we could use," Montgomery said. "We give a bunch of different ways."

Given how embryonic .Net is, Illuminata analyst James Governor doubts efforts to clone it can be very advanced. He said the strategy somewhat resembles a tactic open-source fans accuse Microsoft of employing: the spread of FUD--fear, uncertainty and doubt--to undermine faith in a competing project.

"It seems to me this is like open-source FUD," Governor said.

But Perens said the stakes have never been higher.

"The broader interest is in making sure that Microsoft doesn't own the Internet," he said.