In March 2000, I took Microsoft to task for its weak Windows 2000 tagline, "The Business Internet Starts Here." I felt that this tagline, like its "Digital Nervous System" predecessor, did nothing to drive a strong vision inside or outside Microsoft. In contrast, Microsoft's "Next Generation Internet" .NET vision is creating a buzz around the halls of Microsoft and ultimately will change the way you think about computing. Here's what you can expect to see in the short term.
Killer Development Tools
In the next 2 years, Microsoft's .NET strategy will focus on creating killer development tools, such as the upcoming Microsoft Visual Studio.NET. The main idea is to get developers to raise the bar on Internet applications to the point where Microsoft's .NET platform is the only technology able to deliver the Internet experience that end users demand.
According to WebSideStory's StatMarket, nearly 93 percent of all computers connected to the Web use a Windows OS, and 86 percent use Microsoft Internet Explorer. If anyone can define the way we'll experience the Internet in the future, Microsoft can—and will—with its .NET Web services vision.
Microsoft intends to provide developers with a set of building-block services for use in applications. These services will offer authentication, privacy, access, and control capabilities for applications that developers build using .NET tools. At the heart of these services is Microsoft Passport.NET, a database of user information including name, email address, credit cards, shipping addresses, and more.
Passport.NET is alive and well today. When a person joins MSN Hotmail or MSN Messenger Service, an identification record is created for that person. The applications and services that MSN hosts access the information in the database, and as Microsoft adds functionality to MSN's service offerings, the database is continually extended.
Freedom to Move Between Devices
The centralized storage of personal, application, security, and financial information is instrumental to server-based .NET computing. Accessing user information from a centralized database lets users move from one device to the next without the need to configure each device they use.
Over time, Passport.NET and other centralized user databases will contain a significant amount of information about users and their applications. So one of the biggest challenges for the .NET environment will be to keep the user experience reliable and convenient yet keep users' personal information private. Centralized information databases can provide a safety net for mobile-device users. For example, consider how vulnerable you are if your phone stores crucial information and the phone gets destroyed or stolen. If all your information is stored on a server instead of in the phone, you can simply replace the phone, synchronize your data, and get back to business.
Delivering on .NET
In small ways, Microsoft is already delivering on its .NET vision. For example, Microsoft is marketing a subscription-based version of Exchange 2000 Server as bCentral Communications Center. For about $4 (US) per month, you get your own domain name and access to Exchange 2000 through the Microsoft Outlook Web Access (OWA) Web client. This service is a good deal for small businesses if you consider the alternative of having to buy, install, configure, and maintain Microsoft BackOffice Server or Small Business Server.
In 2001, Microsoft will likely release the first version of NetDocs, a Web version of Microsoft Office. The first version of NetDocs will have a slimmed-down feature set compared with Office 2000. Remember the differences between Word 5.0 for DOS and Word for Windows 1.0? The DOS version of Word had many more features than the first release of the Windows version, but Microsoft believed that over time, the Windows version would prevail. The transition from Win32 to .NET applications will take years and will increase support costs during the transition because of the need to support both Win32 and Web versions of software for users. On the plus side, the Web version of software will be much easier to support because it will eliminate PC configuration issues.
A Strong Vision at Last
The .NET initiative is a good one for Microsoft both as a vision and from a marketing standpoint. The .NET strategy takes advantage of the Internet and provides direction for Microsoft's partners, developers, and customers. I'm looking forward to the cool new .NET applications for my PDA, phone, and PC. I'm looking forward to having information follow me from one device to the next. I'm looking forward to centralized control of applications. And I'm looking forward to job security for the next 10 years.