Selling the .NET Vision

For a fast-moving technology company, Microsoft faces the odd task of occasionally trying to rally its employees and customers around various initiatives, or "visions." In the early 1990s, the initiative was Windows NT, which didn't take off with customers until 1996; a consumer-oriented NT version (i.e., Windows XP) didn't appear until late 2001. In early 2002, the up-and-coming initiative is Microsoft .NET, the often-elusive, barely understood set of technologies that always seems to be on the cusp of actually happening. As with many Microsoft technologies, most currently available .NET products—.NET Passport, .NET Messenger Service, .NET Alerts, the .NET Enterprise Servers—are based on previous technologies, and Microsoft has renamed or rebadged them so that the products seem more in line with the company's plans for the future. So how does Microsoft address the biggest problem facing the .NET platform: that no one seems to even know what .NET is?

Microsoft believes that a little education is in order, so the company has launched a $200 million TV and print advertising campaign to spread the .NET vision to the masses. You might have seen the ads, dubbed "One Degree of Separation," which I think are as inscrutable and meaningless as the company's previous "Business Agility" ads. (You don't remember those ads, do you?)

The problems with .NET's identity are many. To the public, .NET is so nebulous that people have difficulty wrapping their minds around all of it. Like previous Microsoft technologies such as ActiveX, which was a dumping ground for anything remotely related to lightweight component technology, .NET is saddled with too many products and technologies. Microsoft's tendency to lump products and technologies together results from the company's corporate culture: Because .NET is the current strategic push, all of Microsoft's product groups want to be associated with .NET and glom on to its popularity, thereby raising the profile and importance of the people in those groups. And because some of those groups' products will meet tremendous success, the stakes are high for everyone involved. A complicating factor is the one-sided message from Microsoft's top brass: In internal product reviews, product managers must state how their product fulfills the .NET vision, and what roles those products play in the company's continued success. Thus, increasing amounts of technology get dumped into the .NET bit bucket, making it hard for end users and IT decision makers to separate the wheat from the chaff. Is a silly release like "The Magic School Bus .NET," a Web services-enabled children's game, only a matter of time? I jest, but you never know with Microsoft.

Another problem is that .NET is highly technical, especially at this early stage. How do you sell technologies such as XML, Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), and Web services to consumers or nontechnical decision makers in the enterprise? The answer, of course, is that you don't. But don't tell Microsoft that sales fact; for some reason, the company has spent the past few years trying to explain .NET technology to the world, and I think such explanations are a mistake. I'm astonished that the term "XML" is in the common lexicon, because consumers simply have no reason to deal with such a low-level technology. When Windows 95 shipped more than 6 years ago, Microsoft didn't sell the product based on the OS's 32-bit, preempted multithreaded kernel; the company pushed the fact that Win95 was more stable and reliable than previous versions. See the difference? Microsoft needs to promote what .NET can do for us, not the technology itself.

Consider the recent ads by Ford Motor Company, which feature Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. in a series of nostalgic looks back on the company's history. Ford is selling a tradition, even a lifestyle, and Microsoft might take this advertising strategy to heart. Why isn't America's most famous technologist—Bill Gates—appearing in folksy TV ads explaining ways in which Web services will change everything for the better? A possible tagline for the ad campaign is "It's all possible with .NET."

.NET is the first Microsoft technology that competing industry groups have—grudgingly—endorsed. Microsoft competitors such as Sun Microsystems, Ximian, and even the Free Software Foundation (FSF) are porting various .NET technologies to rival platforms or working to ensure that .NET Web services interoperate with competing, but similar, technologies. The computer industry seems to agree that Web services are the wave of the future, in the same way that the Internet was a clear beacon to follow about 6 years ago. This type of agreement doesn't happen very often, so maybe Microsoft should take advantage of it and ride the wave of popular opinion.

Microsoft needs to let people know what's really going on with .NET and why this technology isn't just cool, but also useful, and better than what came before. The company needs to let consumers know that .NET will work with the hardware they already own, and that the OS doesn't require expensive upgrades. The array of .NET-enabled technologies coming down the pike won't mean much if .NET isn't a market success. And .NET won't succeed if people don't even know what Microsoft is selling.

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