Top Stories of 2001, #8: .NET and Open Alternatives Fight for the Future

After Microsoft made it clear throughout 2000 that it was moving toward a future of Web services originally called Next Generation Windows Services (NGWS), the company revamped its strategy, renamed it .NET, and entered 2001 ready to deliver on some of its promises. But Microsoft's fledgling .NET vision wouldn't exit 2001 without weathering a few storms, including a slew of competition from several familiar sources. And the company's security problems throughout the year--the top story of 2001, I believe--contributed to a growing sense that maybe, just maybe, Microsoft wasn't the right company to trust with our security and privacy in the upcoming interconnected world.

Philosophically, most computer-industry visionaries now agree that Web services--intelligent, XML-based data snippets that abstract the difference between running code locally on your PC and on specially designed Internet servers--will ultimately prove to be a viable business model. For this reason, Microsoft should be awarded the innovator tag for its early push to .NET, during which time the company educated consumers and businesses about terms such as XML, Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), and Web services, placing them for the first time into common use. But the company is also undergoing an educational campaign of a different stripe, as it tries to tie this new software-delivery paradigm to a new subscription model in which it will levy scheduled fees to its customers. Thus, if .NET is successful, it will also mark the end of store-bought cardboard boxes containing one or more CD-ROMs and code that's frozen in time. Instead, code will be live and updated as needed.

In early February 2001--some 8 months after Microsoft unveiled .NET--Sun Microsystems announced its own vision for Web services. Dubbed Sun Open Net Environment (Sun ONE), the initiative provided an open architecture, road map, and 7-year plan for a system of Web services that would work across the Internet. "We're on the brink of an explosion of services that will flourish in this free market and bring simpler, easier, smarter services to every man, woman, and child," said Sun Chairman and CEO Scott McNealy. As with .NET, Sun's plan focuses on XML, and the company said it would take 2 years to come together. Sun ONE never really took off, but a future effort--the Liberty Alliance--succeeded beyond expectations.

A month later, Microsoft unleashed .NET HailStorm, a set of plans for the first generation of .NET Web services. HailStorm--later renamed to the awkward .NET My Services--included base services such as email, instant messaging (IM), alerts and notifications, calendar functions, address book, and file storage, as well as premium services that still haven't been identified. "HailStorm starts with the assumption that the \[users control\] all of their personal information and \[get\] to decide with whom they share any of their information and under what terms," a Microsoft HailStorm white paper stated. "By putting the user\[s\] in control of their own data, HailStorm relies on an affirmative consent model for how applications, services, and devices interact with users. The \[users own\] their data. Any access to that data, any changes to that data, and any use of that data requires the explicit consent of the user\[s\]." An earlier version of the white paper, which Microsoft quickly pulled from its Web site, contained the following graphic example--which is as humorous as it is frightening--of why this approach is important. "What about privacy? How can that nice young woman who lives down the street with an unlisted phone number make sure that the wacko who lived across the hall from her in college can't track her down and follow through on his threats?"

Wackos from college notwithstanding, Microsoft also had to contend with complaints from AOL and Sun, which contacted the US Department of Justice (DOJ) about HailStorm and its potential for furthering Microsoft's anticompetitive goals.

Windows XP, released in October 2001, included the first three HailStorm services: Microsoft Passport .NET for authentication, .NET events and notifications, and a rendezvous service for setting up remote voice or video calls. Microsoft spent much of the rest of the year integrating these features into XP and preparing the first round of HailStorm services for release, although they relied in part on Passport upgrades that didn't occur until the end of 2001.

In July, Linux developer Ximian announced that it would port Microsoft's .NET to Linux. The company said its rationale was simple: .NET solves several problems, and those solutions should be available to everyone, not just Windows users. Ximian planned to port C#, the C# compiler, the .NET Common Language Infrastructure (CLI), and the .NET Common Language Runtime (CLR), which are key to making C#-based Web services run on Linux. The company said the ports would be finished by mid-2002.

In August, Sun continued its anti-Microsoft assault with full-page ads in major US newspapers that demanded that Microsoft include Sun's Java technology in the upcoming XP release. The company also asked major PC makers to include the technology in their new PCs. Predictably, Microsoft wasn't amused. "It is ironic that we spent 3 years in litigation with Sun over \[its\] attempt to stop us from shipping Java in Windows, and now \[the company is\] complaining that we are not shipping it by default in Windows XP," a Microsoft spokesperson said. But the irony was that Microsoft was the single largest distributor of Java technology because of Java's inclusion in Internet Explorer (IE) and Windows (which is no longer the case now that Java isn't included in XP). Sun's efforts ultimately proved futile, and XP shipped without Java technology. Few consumers complained, and those who did could easily download Microsoft's Java JVM--almost obsolete thanks to Sun's lawsuit--from Windows Update. The irony continues to pile up.

In late September, Microsoft announced it would open up its controversial Passport .NET authentication service to make it compatible with upcoming services from rivals such as AOL and Sun. The change was the latest in a long series of compromises the company made in 2001 with regard to Passport, in large part because of complaints from privacy groups, lawmakers, and competitors.

Two weeks later, the company delivered the first .NET Alerts, the first shipping components of .NET My Services. The .NET Alerts let users get up-to-the-minute updates from numerous companies, 20 of which had signed on for the launch, although very few have shipped alerts to this day. Microsoft was also developing a business-oriented set of services code-named Blizzard. "The .NET Alerts Service is an early but tangible example of how Microsoft is delivering on the .NET My Services vision, helping consumers access their information any time, anywhere, on any device, and just scratches the surface of the power of Web services," said Christopher Payne, vice president of .NET My Services.

By early October, two major Passport .NET competitors had arrived. Sun announced its Liberty Alliance, which brought together dozens of companies from several industries, and invited Microsoft to join. AOL announced a product called Magic Carpet, which seemed to be a Passport rip-off, but the company eventually joined the Liberty Alliance and will presumably use the technology this group delivers instead. "The \[Liberty Alliance\] services will provide distributed authentication, and open, platform-neutral network authorization, from any device connected to the Internet, from traditional desktop computers and cellular phones to credit cards, automobiles and point-of-sale terminals," a Sun white paper states.

Later in October, Microsoft surprised developers when it released a beta version of Visual J# .NET, an update to its previous Visual J++ Java programming tool. But Visual J# isn't really an attempt at bringing Java to the Visual Studio .NET programming environment; instead, it provides an upgrade path for the millions of developers who use Visual J++. Microsoft expects most developers to switch to Visual C# .NET or Visual Basic .NET.

Online upgrades to XP's Windows Messenger component (announced in mid-October) hinted at the direction Microsoft would take to meld Web services into Windows. As the primary conduit for .NET Alerts and other .NET Web services, Messenger will add new PC-to-phone calling options that let Windows Messenger users converse over the Internet with people who use standard telephones, as well as a new tab-based interface for XML-based Web-services interfaces.
By mid-December, the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) ratified Microsoft's Java-like C# programming language and the .NET CLI technology as standards. The ratification came a year after Microsoft submitted the technologies, a jab of sorts at Sun, which makes Java and has thus far refused to submit that language to a standards body. Microsoft hoped that by standardizing key parts of .NET it could usurp Java as the platform of choice for developing Web-enabled applications and services.

As 2001 came to a close, it became clear that the Liberty Alliance would be successful--an amazing turn of events, given that Microsoft had had years to develop and fine-tune its Passport service. But major Microsoft partners and competitors joined the Alliance, and it now seems obvious that an open consortium of companies, not just Microsoft, should provide the online authentication and information protection that Passport seeks to offer. A prediction: Microsoft will join the Liberty Alliance in 2002 so that its Passport .NET servers can interoperate with the outside world. This technology is just too important for one company to go it alone.

But the rest of Microsoft's .NET strategy is on track, and the company was able to integrate basic Web-services functionality into XP despite legal threats from its competitors. This bundling will set the stage for future .NET My Services releases and an upcoming generation of .NET Enterprise Servers, which will provide the back-end functionality to drive Web services in 2002 and beyond. As for subscription software, well, we're not quite there yet. I think consumer resistance to this concept will be strong, so I expect Microsoft to drive this model in the enterprise first, through a revamped Licensing 6.0 program. After the enterprise falls in line, we'll soon be subscribing to Windows .NET and Office .NET. And one day, if Microsoft is correct, we'll wonder what all the fuss was about.

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