In my March 7 commentary "Selling the .NET Vision," I explained that Microsoft faces problems in selling .NET to consumers because the .NET technology is so nebulous and ever changing. In fact, consumers will never see much .NET-oriented technology unless companies other than Microsoft decide to adopt the technology as well. So at this week's Microsoft CEO Summit, a yearly event that Microsoft holds, the company decided to pour it on a bit thick with lavish receptions, futuristic product demos, and other showcases for insider information. The results, interestingly, were almost immediately positive.
This year's CEO Summit is the sixth Microsoft has held, and the lucky 100-plus chief executives who attended the event were treated to a lamb and salmon extravaganza at Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates's $100 million Lake Washington mansion, which no doubt played a big part in getting them to openly and excitedly embrace virtually every Microsoft technology coming down the pike. Most were particularly excited about the upcoming Tablet PC devices—which are essentially laptops with convertible screens that users can flip over to use the device as a tablet—probably because all of the attendees walked away from the event with prototypes to use over the summer. But while Gates obviously would have taken any positive feedback the CEOs could provide, he was most obviously interested in selling .NET. And his opening speech to the CEOs—the only part of the event open to the press—focused mostly on this topic.
.NET, Gates said, is a $10 billion "bet-the-company" strategy that will fundamentally change the way Microsoft and the rest of the computer industry sell software services while also overcoming the limitations of today's software model. But in the 2 years since the company began pushing the technology, precious little of .NET can be seen working today, and most related products and services—.NET Passport, MSN Messenger, and Windows Messenger, for example—existed before .NET was even invented. Even more troubling, of course, is the resistance customers have shown toward Microsoft's various .NET projects. Microsoft has scaled back the strategy for .NET Passport several times, and the company recently abruptly cancelled its most ambitious product plan—.NET My Services (formerly code-named HailStorm)—after none of Microsoft's partners elected to adopt the technology. The company is now restructuring .NET My Services to be more palatable to those partners, but the resulting product will barely resemble Microsoft's original plan.
Gates said that the company has learned from these public stumbles and agrees now that .NET's infrastructure should be based purely on open standards and not require Microsoft servers or proprietary technologies, a change that would let companies control their own users' data. "It's a scary thing because if only one company goes down this road \[of noninteroperable proprietary solutions\], it's really a dead end," Gates said. "This year is the first year I can say for sure that the leading companies have decided this is the approach and they are going to build around this for rich interoperability."
Speech over, the CEOs headed off to mingle and presumably exchange information about the Microsoft technologies that their companies have adopted. Microsoft made a few CEOs available to the press, but this group was obviously handpicked and had little of importance to impart. But given the bubbly, effusive praise heaped on .NET during the event, Microsoft clearly hit a few high notes and maybe sold some important people on the technology. If Microsoft can get just a few other companies to "bet the company" on .NET, the technology might have a fighting chance.