.NET in 2001—What to Expect

I've discussed various .NET release scenarios in previous columns, but this week, thanks to some internal schedules I've obtained, I can present a more concrete look at what Microsoft plans for .NET in 2001. Microsoft hasn't been very good about communicating a concrete strategy for bringing .NET and .NET-enabled products to market. However, if we consider specific .NET products, we can gain a clearer understanding of the company's intentions. One disturbing conclusion that emerges from this product list is .NET's apparent reliance on Windows XP. Microsoft has said repeatedly that it will support .NET on a variety of clients, and although I believe this to be true, it's interesting to note that almost all the products I discuss below rely, at least initially, on a Windows XP client.

First up is Microsoft's free email service, Hotmail, which the company will transform into a .NET service this year. Hotmail is currently available through the Hotmail Web site and Microsoft's MSN Explorer (an updated version shipped this week). But beginning this summer, Microsoft will be expanding Hotmail in two ways. In June, the company will launch a new version of Hotmail that incorporates user interface (UI) changes to the Inbox, Read Mail, and Compose Mail pages. The company will redesign the attachment download page and will make available a new version of the Inbox Protector. Microsoft will switch Hotmail to the Passport database, and more closely integrate the product with its Messenger software. Under the hood, Hotmail will work as a Web service. Also in June, Microsoft will launch a fee-based version of Hotmail that provides 8MB of extra Inbox storage for $10 a year. I see the beginnings of a subscription service in this plan.

Sometime between now and July, Messenger 4.0 will debut in Windows XP—and it might be available only as part of Windows XP. (Microsoft hasn't decided yet.) Messenger 4.0 will be the version of Messenger that integrates the notification services we've discussed previously. Final branding for Messenger is also up in the air: Current versions are known as MSN Messenger, but sources tell me that Messenger 4.0 might simply be called Windows Messenger.

According to the latest schedule, Passport 2.0's release to the Web (RTW) will occur July 13. Passport 2.0 will be a major upgrade, with a completely new UI, NetDocs registration and administration integration (NetDocs is the .NET-enabled version of Office that Microsoft hopes to release in beta form this summer), a new Help system, Contact Us/Member Services enhancements, back-end contested Passport and Passport deletion capabilities, and more. A new Passport Support Tool will replace the Passport Profile Tool. And Hotmail accounts and free MSN Passports (i.e, MSN Internet access accounts that you create with MSN Explorer) will move into Microsoft's secure Passport database. As a result, .NET-enabled Passport clients will be able to search for Hotmail and MSN accounts.

In October, Microsoft will release Passport 3.0, which will sync with the version that accompanies the retail release of Windows XP, also due in October. This release will feature inline sign-in, "Consent Central," Kids enhancements, partner-specified registration, user-directed Passport deletion, and more. The Windows XP version of Passport will let you attach your Windows logon to a Passport account, so that logging on to Windows will give you access to Passport-enabled content seamlessly, without logging on to each site.

Previously known as MSN Alerts, Notify.NET service will accompany Windows XP Release Candidate 1 (RC1), where it will show up as an Alerts tab in Messenger. (Microsoft has cancelled a public beta of this version so that it can tie the feature to Windows XP.) Initially, Microsoft will hard-code the Messenger Alerts tab with links to the Microsoft Web site, but a later release will open up the functionality to other public Web sites. The MSN Alert Web site, which will let you subscribe to .NET notifications, will open in August. And Microsoft partners will add alerts to the site beginning in September, so that XP customers will have a wide range of notifications to choose from when Windows XP arrives in stores in October. A front-end to these alerts, called MSN Invite, will also launch as an example of a classic .NET services-enabled application.

Microsoft's MSN Calendar will morph into a .NET service this year as well. In mid- to late-July, the company will launch Calendar 3.0, which will integrate the service into a Calendar tab in Messenger. Calendar 3.0 will let you send scheduling alerts through MSN Invites. Authentication to Calendar, of course, will occur through Passport. In late 2001, Microsoft will release Calendar 3.5 with support for a feature called eForms, but it's currently unclear what this feature is, exactly.

Looking over this list, it's obvious that integration is the name of the game. Microsoft will bundle most of the initial .NET-enabled applications into a future version of Messenger, which the company will provide only with Windows XP. And each service uses Passport for authentication and Notify.NET alerts to send messages back and forth. As these dates come closer and Microsoft makes or delays the schedule, it'll be interesting to see how everything comes together. And it'll be interesting to see how—and whether—Microsoft addresses its non-XP clients.

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