Microsoft .NET: the jury is out

A great deal of hype has been seen and heard about Microsoft .NET over the last year: we have heard about BizTalk, HailStorm and the rest of the .NET architecture. However, what should .NET mean to the Middle East's small business owners? We try to separate .NET fact from .NET fiction.

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By  Robin Duff Published  May 31, 2001

I|~||~||~|There are critics who would contend that in 1995, when Microsoft could no longer deny the potential significance of the Internet, Bill Gates transformed his company over night in order to rule that space. In that scenario, Microsoft Internet Explorer was the new addition to the Microsoft stable, and the Redmond giant set out to dominate the Internet-access arena as successfully as it has done in the OS and application suite space. But the day when the dominant platform for accessing the Internet may not necessarily be Windows is drawing closer. For that same reason, the client-side applications suites hosted by users on that platform, appear to have a less vigorous future.

The Internet: master of the game
The master of the game today for businesses and end users alike, is the Internet itself. The most significant portion of the Internet space on offer is the core— the server architecture, and who controls that will ultimately be the big-time winner. Microsoft knows it. So do Sun Microsystems and a host of others. The challenge is on. Microsoft’s strategy is called .Net and it has had the typical pre-announcement treatment so far. Gates elaborated on Hailstorm, the company’s Web-based back-end collaboration software last month, but the product isn’t in fact due until the end of 2002.

Nonetheless, the introduction of Hailstorm is a milestone in the development of .Net in that it makes what has been a murky strategy until recently, just that little bit clearer.
In a nutshell, .Net is Microsoft’s acceptance of the fact that in the future, shrink-wrapped software sold with complicated licensing agreements will be less and less attractive to customers. More and more, the Internet becomes a global mainframe, and ultimately, .Net will open the gateway for customers to get their software from the Internet either in whole chunks, or in modular format, and store their data on the Internet itself.

What does make .Net powerful is that the very philosophy it implies opens up the floodgates to a mass of other services. Some of those ideas can be seen in Microsoft products today, such as in the latest Office evolution, Office XP.

In a live demo at the launch event recently, Windows User watched the Microsoft demonstrator check his hotmail account from within his Outlook application. When sending an email, the demonstrator was able to choosebetween sending it through his corporate email account (configured as default in Outlook) or through his hotmail account.
Where it gets impressive is that selecting ‘hotmail’ was all that was necessary for the mail to be sent; there was no requirement for Outlook to go to the Web and start up hotmail itself. The seamlessness between Outlook and configured Web mail accounts is absolute— or at least it is for hotmail— today. It remains to be seen whether similar services can be rolled out for Yahoo mail and so on.
Another example was the ability to make your Outlook calendar available to selected people on the Web— through a portal made available by Microsoft. The scheduling of appointments is made easier by your colleagues’ ability to see when you are free. The level of customisation is also very high so that you can decide who you want to see your information, how much you want them to see, and when. Of course, this kind of Web-based information sharing isn’t new, but it is very powerful when placed in the hands of the 250 million Microsoft Office users in the world today.

What Microsoft appears to want is to create portals which enable these tools and features to run seamlessly, and then tailor them to the needs of individual demographics, or business classes. There are two things to remember of course: the first is that this is a long haul strategy— as the predicted arrival of Hailstorm only in 2002 implies.

The second is that the move by Microsoft to a Web-based software services strategy does not imply that Microsoft has decided to stop generating revenue.

“First of all, one thing you have to remember is the transformation from software to services isn’t going to happen overnight, which is good. I am not sure we can get it done overnight. So it’s not like anyone needs to panic,” said Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO late last year. “As we architect the .Net platform in services, one of the major issues for the whole notion of software as a service— let alone the transformation we are going to go through— is how do you make sure these services have the same kind of flexibility to be customised and integrated with other services that packaged software does?”

Ballmer points out that he isn’t implying by that long-term approach that he doesn’t expect .Net to happen. However, when pushed on the point, his response was that the split, five years
from now, between software that is bought and software services delivered via the Internet would be still only around 25-30% via service.

“But if it happens sooner, we’re happy. I sort of feel there’s so much going on that it could go on, on, on and then, boom, it’ll hockey stick,” he said. Ballmer also elaborated that under .Net, a variety of options exist for customers to develop services of their own, adding to what he sees as an enormous .Net cloud of customised solutions. Microsoft will host many such services itself however, in the same manner as it does today with online services such as its small business portal, bCentral. It is at this level that the strategy will be put to its greatest test however.

In theory, where Hotmail is a free service today, the tie-in with other .Net applications and the decrease in the cost of desktop applications could see precisely these free services become pay-per-use services. The risk is that nobody has ever presented a paid-for service such as that, over the Web successfully. An example is that of Yahoo, which, when it started charging for what had been free auctions, saw its usage drop by 80-90%. That is a drop in market share which Microsoft will not want to see, obviously, but it may have to weather such storms in the future.

But what about the collective confusion with which .Net has been received in the last few months? Businesses have heard about it, and the supposed promise that it will bring, but very few actually know what it really means. Is it a product, or a group of products? Is it of more relevance to small businesses, or enterprises level users? At a recent conference

||**||II|~||~||~|“If we look at .Net, it really is about “smartness” or intelligence: smart about you, so that when you use the Internet, you don’t have to enter your credentials every time you use a simple different application,” said Brian Ball, chief technology officer, EMEA, Microsoft. “It is about software services that exist in a local area, so that a service such as credit scoring can be found through open standards such as XML and UDDI. Taking that as a component and making it a Web service which can be accessed real time, giving the results in a matter of seconds, changing their business model, opening up new markets to them. That is an example of the power of technology fundamentally changing the way we do business.”

.NET: too little too late?
The sweeping effort to transform its software products into Internet-based services has been mostly greeted to with scepticism by its rivals. The feeling is that the initiative has arrived very late on the scene. The strategy is seen as a “retrofit” by Sun’s Java gurus, including George Paolini, vice president of Java community development at the company.

“If you read between the lines, Microsoft is looking for a way to extend the life of their Windows-based products…it’s a new face on an old approach,” said Paolini.

Sun’s mantra is “the network is the computer,” and it has always been a proponent of application service providers, who offer services and software over the Internet. Its Java programming language, released in 1995, is now widely used among enterprise software companies to create e-commerce applications and infrastructure for business-to-business dealings over networks. Java is starting to make some headway, although more slowly, as a language to develop software for a variety of devices, from cell phones to handheld computers.
IBM has also been somewhat cynical about .Net.

“This is several years late on two fronts,” said Scott Hebner, director of e-business marketing at IBM. “The operating system is not the centre of gravity anymore. They are also late in recognising the function of the what the Internet is all about.”

According to Hebner, IBM started to focus seriously on e-business and developing software to enable its customers to create Internet-based applications and services using open industry standards such as Java; Linux, the open source operating system; and extensible markup system (XML), a standard for exchanging data on the Web. IBM has been touting its e-business savvy for several years and in 1997, it launched WebSphere software, which has become part of its offerings for building Net based applications. Oracle sees .Net as “very long on vision and very short on execution,” according to Jeremy Burton, senior vice president of product marketing at Oracle.

“If Microsoft doesn't deliver anything within a year, they might not be in the game. We have our software now and that counts for everything.”

||**||III|~||~||~|Oracle’s database management software is used by many Web based companies for storing data and product offerings. Oracle also has application server software and it recently began offering applications for Web based businesses. Hewlett Packard, which has also been late to the party, jumped in with full force in mid-1999. It has made its “e-speak” software development platform available over the Internet for free so that companies can create industry standard Web-based applications. The company has made some altogether more positive statements about Microsoft’s plans.

“The good part that we really like about the announcement is that, in a sense, it reaffirms for the industry what we have been saying all along…that the next chapter of the Internet is all service based,” said Rajiv Gupta, general manager of HP’s e-speak operations.
It seems likely that Microsoft and Java technologies will dominate e-business application development for the next five years, but it looks like larger businesses will have little option but to support both technologies.

Mark Driver, research director for e-business technologies at Gartner, said that Microsoft has failed in its first battle to kill Java, but the war for control of the multi-billion dollar application development market is not over. Companies have chosen Java because, according to Driver, “it has more wiggle room so that design problems can be overcome with sheer horsepower.”

This means that only smaller companies can realistically afford to consolidate on one or other technology. Speaking at recent symposium in the United States, Driver said that the real losers in this war were Cobol and 4GL languages, which are decreasing in importance as Java and Microsoft’s .Net technologies evolve. However, he said the Web services strategies exposed by both camps will ease integration over the next five years.

COM stretched to breaking point
“Microsoft's existing technology, Component Object Model (COM) has been stretched until it can't be stretched any more. .Net is a brand new rubber band with massive changes including a new runtime and API framework, and support for XML,” said Driver, who added that Visual Basic programmers face a steep learning curve. Driver predicts that Microsoft will not include support Java in its upcoming development toolset, Visual Studio.Net, but that its C# (C- “sharp”) technology will remain Microsoft-centric for at least two years. More surprisingly, he said the development of .Net for Linux or Unix could follow if Microsoft’s court fight with the US government resulted in the software giant being split into separate applications and operating system companies.

“A split would accelerate the shipping of a cross-platform version of .Net, because a future application company would see Linux as an opportunity— not a threat,” said Driver. One thing is certain— Gates has bet the company on .Net, as he did with the browser in 1995. Though the strategy is almost certainly intended correctly, the jury is out—and isn’t about to come in with a verdict any time soon—on how successful he can be.||**||

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