.NET Heads to a New Market

Microsoft has targeted its .NET technology at businesses since the company announced the initiative almost 3 years ago, but businesses have been slow to adopt .NET, as they are with any new technology. But as Microsoft's plans for a .NET My Services infrastructure have crumbled, leaving the company to develop a standalone server product that will be more amenable to enterprise needs, Microsoft has turned to consumers to roll .NET out to a large group of users. For example, in October 2002, Microsoft launched MSN 8, which has consumer-oriented .NET My Services-like features.

However, no group of consumers beats teenagers for enthusiastically adopting technology. Today's teens were raised on technology, and in the same way that people of my generation were the first to grow up with video games, today's teens are the first of what I call the Windows Generation--they aren't conscious of a time when Microsoft didn't dominate the desktop computing landscape. Microsoft refers to this group as the Net Generation, or NetGen, because the Internet has played such a pervasive role in their lives.

Microsoft looked at the NetGen market, which the company defines as 13- to 24-year-olds, and determined that this crowd wanted a more seamless way to interact with their friends online. The idea is that Internet-savvy kids are on Instant Messaging (IM) first thing in the morning, and they want to spend the day chatting, sharing music, and otherwise wasting time. Despite my qualms about Microsoft's ability to discern what the youth of the world are all about, the company's assessment of this group makes sense to me. And if Microsoft wants to be relevant to the kids who will one day be technology decision makers, the company should start targeting this crowd immediately.

The result of Microsoft's brainstorming for this market is a free .NET Messenger-based product called 3 Degrees that will ship in beta form the week of February 24. 3 Degrees is an application that sits on your Windows XP desktop and gives you seamless access to one or more groups of friends. Everything is completely customizable--you can choose from a collection of stock group images, for example, or make your own. The software even offers ways to make subtle, pseudo-social gestures to your pals, such as virtual winks. And when you share music, all of your friends in the group you specify can contribute to the playlist. It's a peer-to-peer sharing application with soul but is designed with copyright holders' interests in mind as well: If a particular friend isn't online, her portion of the shared playlist won't be available to others until she returns.

3 Degrees lets you configure groups of as many as 10 friends, and you can interact with several groups at a time. Images on your desktop represent your groups, and you can right-click an image to open various options, such as sending groupwide chat messages, winks, digital photos, or music. The 3 Degrees product assumes you have a broadband connection and that you're online a lot. The application is easy to use. If you want to share a digital photo with a group, for example, you simply drag it onto the group's desktop image, and 3 Degrees will automatically transmit the photo to everyone in the group.

Some writers are reporting that 3 Degrees is a "surprising departure" for Microsoft, but I don't see the product as a detour for the company. In recent years, Microsoft has made credible moves into the consumer market with Windows XP Home Edition and its pervasive home-networking and digital-media experiences and the near-photo-realistic Xbox video game system and various PC-based games. In my mind, 3 Degrees is a logical move for the company, although apparently several upper-level and, frankly, aging Microsoft executives such as Bill Gates and Jim Allchin had to be convinced of that. They're on board now.

Controversially, 3 Degrees will be free--"There's no business plan," boasts one Microsoft executive--an approach that carries shades of Internet Explorer and the company's ongoing antitrust woes. The goal, of course, is to get people to stop using IM and start using a more full-featured product, and 3 Degrees might just fit the bill.

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