Microsoft finally revealed its plans for a next generation Internet on Thursday, though the horrendous Next Generation Windows Services (NGWS) tag was finally dropped for the friendlier Microsoft.NET ("Microsoft Dot Net"). And as expected, Microsoft announced that it is transitioning from a supplier of shrink-wrapped software to a company that makes money from subscriptions and services. The software subscription model, of course, brings back unwelcome memories of a Microsoft tollbooth on the Internet, but the company simply explained that it is changing with the times and remodeling itself in a manner consistent with the growing Internet tidal wave.
"Microsoft is announcing today that our efforts as a company are going to be focused around this next generation \[Internet\] platform," said Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. "We call it .NET. That’s a term you’ll hear a lot today, and it encompasses more than one thinks. It encompasses the idea of putting rich code onto \[a wide array of\] clients. It encompasses the idea of having services across the Internet that help every one of these clients. And then there’s a new generation of servers that can work together providing those services that can either run inside of corporations, can run inside an ASP or can be run by the software creators themselves in order to allow all the users to get at that service capability."
"Today, people have to adapt to technology," said Microsoft president and CEO Steve Ballmer. "We believe that technology should adapt to them. Industry standards like XML and SOAP unlock information so it can be organized, manipulated and programmed, then displayed on any kind of device or system, any way you want it. A platform built around these standards will put control of information back into the hands of the people that need to use it. Microsoft .NET products and services are totally focused on achieving that goal."
And it is this Microsoft .NET strategy, so important to the company, which is so hard to understand, let alone explain. Indeed, the sweeping series of technology initiatives that came out of Redmond this week is mind-numbing in its scope. Simply put, everything Microsoft releases from here on out will be part of Microsoft .NET, which is an infrastructure or platform, and a set of next-generation Web services. It includes a new Microsoft .NET "User Experience" for rich (read: Windows-based) clients, .NET building block services, and .NET device software, which will enable a new generation of smart Internet devices. New Microsoft .NET-compatible products include the next version of Windows, called Windows.NET ("Windows Dot Net", which includes an integrated core comprised on the .NET building block services), the next version of MSN (MSN.NET), a new version of Office that runs as Web services called Office.NET, the next-generation version of Visual Studio ("Visual Studio.NET," due in early 2001), bCentral for .NET, and an as-yet-unnamed personal subscription services. Microsoft's business partners and third party developers will be able to leverage the Microsoft .NET platform with tools and services of their own.
The Dot NET strategy is going to take some time to implement, of course. The company promises a glimpse at this future with Visual Studio 7, due in alpha this summer. But it will phase in some of the more exciting aspects of Microsoft .NET over the next two years, according to Gates, with Windows .NET version 1 appearing in Windows "Whistler," the next version of Windows 2000. But Whistler won't feature a "100 percent implementation" of Windows .NET: Key elements, such as the full User Experience won't be ready until the next major release of Windows, code-named Blackcomb. And Blackcomb isn't expected for another two years at least. "So this plan is not about something that all is finished here and now," Gates said. "This is about how we’re focusing the R&D efforts of the company and doing something that literally is as profound as the initial graphics interface work that we did quite some time ago." Microsoft critics should have fun with that comment, which essentially relegates Microsoft .NET to the vaporware category until product actually ships. But the company rightfully explains that much of the infrastructure for this initiative is being released this year in a host of XML-enabled applications and servers such as SQL 2000, Exchange 2000, and BizTalk 2000.
"Microsoft .NET is a major shift for our company," says Ballmer. "This is a long process, much like the transition from MS-DOS to Windows. We'll continue to offer and support our existing platforms and applications, including versions of the Windows platform without .NET services, and in the long term the majority of our products and services will evolve into subscription services, delivered over the Internet, that will give users greater control, transparent installation and backup, and unprecedented customer service. It will take a long time but we're committed and patient enough to make it happen." Gates concurs. "You could say it’s a bet-the-company thing," he said. "We are putting our resources behind .NET because we believe in this and so our entire strategy is defined around this platform.