The .NET gamble: Microsoft's major offensive explained

Almost six months after the launch of Microsoft's .NET strategy, much of the industry remains unclear as to what the software giant is talking about. Joey Gardiner cuts through the marketing fog, and considers some interesting developments up at Redmond...

Almost six months after the launch of Microsoft's .NET strategy, much of the industry remains unclear as to what the software giant is talking about. Joey Gardiner cuts through the marketing fog, and considers some interesting developments up at Redmond...

Most of us remember the catchphrase: 'A computer on every desk and in every home.' For 25 years Microsoft pushed the PC to a seemingly inexhaustible and eager market. However, last year's change of tack (Microsoft's mantra is now: "Empowering people through great software - anytime, anyplace, anywhere,") was somewhat lost amidst Microsoft's legal problems and the wait for Windows 2000. It was also ignored because it didn't seem a seismic shift in policy. The endlessly delayed Windows 2000, for all Microsoft's protestations, seemed to be merely the next NT - an NT with bugs ironed out, at best - but no change in direction. Developed at length and in seclusion, it was unashamedly aimed at businesses with a PC-based strategy, just like the good old days. But perhaps now, with the advent of .NET, the new mission statement is starting to be backed up. In essence, .NET is about two things: a software interface that allows applications written in different languages to communicate with each other and a move away from PC-based computing. It's a vision, of course, all about the internet. It's about a new generation of web-based services, such as ID services that automatically carry personal details around the web with users, negating the need to re-enter addresses and credit card numbers. But it's also about access to the internet from different devices - some mobile, some not; some fat, some thin. Gordon Smillie, director of business strategies at Microsoft, admits it's easy to get lost in the hype - which, coincidentally, is in line with comments from rival tech giants IBM, HP and Sun. But he insists a big change is taking place. ".NET is talking about a programming interface which allows different languages to talk to each other," he said. "It basically has all the advantages of Java, without insisting you have to re-write everything in the new form. People will carry on writing in C++, Cobol, Perl, but the .NET framework will link everything together. No-one else is offering that." Smillie's and Microsoft's vision is to get websites connected in a richer way, a way that offers a greater array of services. And Microsoft is using the phrase 'open standards' like it invented the concept. However, even the most eager Microsoft marketing manager will admit this vision is a long way from being realised. So what is the company doing now? Apparently, it's moving into the datacentre. Mat Hanrahan, analyst at Bloor Research, said: "If you talk to the people who run datacentres today, and tell them you're going to try using Windows, they'll laugh," said. "But Microsoft says it's improving, and it says 'Like it or not, we're going to be the cheapest reliable offering'." And Microsoft execs will waste no time in pointing sceptics to the latest TPC benchmark results which show servers running SQL Server on Windows 2000 beating alternatives not just on price-performance, but on overall performance too. One of the first concrete things Microsoft did after announcing its .NET strategy was to release new, beefed up versions of its server software. This is because Microsoft can no longer rely on the client (namely, the PC) to hold the intelligence. Under protestation, the company will admit it is moving nearer to a server-based computing model. And that's a paradigm shift for Microsoft. "What we're saying is that there will be different devices, and intelligence will reside in different places," explained Smillie. This shift into the backroom for Microsoft also enables it to embrace other software delivery models - such as ASP, another key element of the .NET vision. Most analysts maintain, however, that the real substance - and the real risk for Microsoft - remains the software framework that will allow different programming languages to talk to each other. Steve Kleynhans, VP of Meta Group, said: ".NET is Microsoft's stake in the ground, telling the world where it wants to be. It remains to be seen how much the world will move in Microsoft's direction." Microsoft has just launched the beta version of Visual Studio.NET, the development tools it hopes will get people writing apps in the .NET environment. Once the uptake of this is known, it will be easier to gauge how successful .NET will be. IBM, for one, says it is pleased to see Microsoft getting more involved with the internet. But it has reservations. Adam Jollans, Linux marketing manager at IBM, summed it up. He said: "The world has changed from 10 years ago, and .NET is a reaction to that. But it doesn't go nearly far enough. To make an ebusiness framework a success, it just has to be cross platform - and .NET isn't." While the .NET framework is programming language agnostic, in terms of operating systems it so far purely a Windows 2000 venture. It seems Microsoft's newfound love of open standards doesn't go as far as the OS. No change there then. However, as has been widely noted, its recent deal with Corel included - as noted in SEC filings - an option to use Corel developers to port .NET to Linux. Derek Burney, CEO of Corel, is confident Linux could play an important part. "Eventually .NET should make the desktop operating system irrelevant, in which case Linux is an obvious alternative, as an OS which is already ubiquitous on the internet," he told silicon.com. He added that Microsoft's attitude to Linux is pragmatic, saying: "Obviously they would rather it went away. But if it doesn't go away, they want to be in a position to make money from it." If you ask Microsoft directly about Linux and .NET, the answer is purposefully tantalising. Smillie said: "We hear the question, but we're just not in a position to make an announcement at the present time." It is tempting to think Microsoft - with an eye on a possible break-up - is being deliberately vague in letting the industry know what it means by .NET. Perhaps if it were clearer, the industry would realise what a massive shift it signals, and thus what a risk it is. As the focus of the IT industry shifts towards the internet, towards the datacentre and, ultimately, away from the PC, this is Microsoft's play to be as dominant in these areas as it has been for the last 25 years on the PC. Will the play work? It's still too early to say.