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Microsoft’s any service, anytime, on any device strategy is going to take time and a lot of R&D dollars to deliver. But the software titan first has to convince users that it’s platform is secure and reliable. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, tells ACN why organisations should trust its .NET platform to empower its users

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By  Greg Wilson Published  April 2, 2002

I|~||~||~|Not satisfied with its position as the undisputed desktop king and its growing server operating system business, Microsoft is making an ambitious play to expand its influence into just about every form of intelligent device. The software vendor’s strategy is nothing new — the vision of empowering users with software, anywhere, any place and on any device, merely brings Microsoft into step with similar pervasive computing strategies from its rivals. However, the main differentiator between Microsoft’s vision and that of its competitors is the weight that the software titan can throw behind such a strategy — few vendors in the world are able to mobilise such an extensive range of industry vendors, corporate partners and programmers to begin developing to its platform.

Microsoft’s timing isn’t a coincidence. Bill Gates’ Redmond software giant has been faced with slowing growth in its core desktop operating system business for some time. In an effort to capture new markets, while still leveraging on its core operating system businesses, Microsoft has spent time and R&D dollars to develop various mobile platforms — many of which will be delivered throughout this year — and TV attached devices like the X-Box.

The vendor has broken into the business applications market with its purchase of Great Plains Software in October of last year and made several investments in online ventures and broadband operators.

Binding these diverse elements together is Microsoft’s .NET platform, which it initially unveiled to its four million strong developer community approximately 18 months ago, and has been adding detail to ever since. Microsoft.NET is designed to help companies build and write applications along web standards — prominently XML and leveraging other protocols such as SOAP, WSDL and UDDI — that will enable the delivery of IP-enabled information services to multiple devices.

In mid-February, Microsoft delivered a core element of its .NET vision when it unveiled its Visual Studio.NET developer environment (See ACN/17/03). With Visual Studio.NET in the market space, Microsoft is rallying its loyal ISVs community to begin widespread development to the .NET platform and web services.

“Our platform for the future is .NET, and it will help people build and write applications that integrate and connect much better using XML standard protocols [for] the Internet,” says Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s president & chief executive officer (CEO), in a roundtable debate hosted at CeBIT and attended by ACN.

“Around that platform, which we will use ourselves and encourage the world to use, we have a number of great businesses — a desktop operating system business, a productivity applications [business] and a growing server operating systems business. We have got investments in consumer online businesses, mobile devices, TV attached devices and now business applications for small-to-medium businesses,” he adds.

Microsoft’s vision of the evolving software market requires an important shift in the traditional vendor/customer relationship. The software company is increasingly positioning itself not just as a provider of technology, but also as a ‘trusted’ partner that will delivery multiple services through multiple devices, via the Internet to both consumers and businesses.

||**||II|~||~||~|Ballmer realises that to help “businesses and individuals realise their potential,” Microsoft needs to work harder. “Not only on those new scenarios but also on helping people trust these IT systems… We’re working harder on security, reliability, those sorts of things,” he adds.

Reinforcing the vendor’s broadband marketing messages is its determination to invest heavily to achieve its goal. “We are a company that will spend over US$5 billion in R&D this year. We will continue to grow, we will continue to provide new value to our customers and continue to try to build off the platform, [so] that we [can] evangelise to others new applications and scenarios.”

However, Microsoft’s final vision and current reality are light years apart. At this year’s CeBIT, Microsoft did its utmost to steal the limelight and espouse its vision of a .NET-enabled future.

During the opening keynote address and again for much of the next day, Ballmer focused on the business and lifestyle deliverables that the IT industry — and in particular Microsoft’s .NET — should deliver over the next three to five years.

Running throughout Ballmer’s keynote address and subsequent press announcements was a strong mobility theme, in terms of operating systems, applications and content. Based primarily around Pocket PC 2002, the up and coming Stinger platform for high end PDAs and Tablet PC — both due for release later this year — Microsoft is attempting to enable intelligent mobile devices, capable of managing and ‘enriching’ data in its smallest form format. “Mobility is a key theme of .NET,” says Ballmer.
“We’re looking to create tools that extend the way people use information from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed,” he adds.

To build this ‘mobile ecosystem’ Microsoft is charging ahead with several partnership agreements both with vendors and service providers. Alongside numerous partnership agreements surrounding PDAs, Tablet PC and the MIRA initiative, Microsoft also unveiled its partnership with Deutsche Telecom to bring to market a number of next generation GPRS-enabled services. Significantly, the telecoms operator also signed up as a web services provider based on the .NET platform.

Although the .NET aspect of the alliance is only at its “rudimentary stages,” there is due to be a massive boom in the web services market by 2006.

“This is a dream team to shape the converging market,” says Ron Summer, CEO of Deutsche Telecom.
Although the mobile market provides various opportunities, there is a still a long way to go before it evolves. “Windows and Office are going to be our biggest businesses in terms of revenues, even in three years,” says Ballmer.

Going forward, the lines between Microsoft’s PC realm and its emerging mobile interests will blur as computing platforms converge.

“It is going to get harder to tell these markets apart… it is going to be harder to tell [which] is a phone maker and which is a PC maker in ten years time,” predicts Ballmer.
However, there are still significant hurdles to the fulfilment of Microsoft’s grand vision. Not least of these hurdles is the low penetration of broadband outside the US. Germany is currently leading Europe with approximately 10% broadband penetration. Although broadband access may be a reality for some businesses, there are still several years of market development before broadband is a reality in the home.

||**||III|~||~||~|The Middle East broadband penetration still has to catch up with European standards, let alone those in the US or the Far East. How rapidly that progresses is still in the hands of the regional telecoms providers.

According to Ballmer, the lack of broadband support shouldn’t delay the deployment of services. However, it will disrupt plans to host Authentication Servers for Passport centrally, but this can be worked around with local hosting, he adds.

The biggest hurdle facing Microsoft before it can transition to its trusted technology provider role is the vendor’s poor security track record. The last 18 months has been littered with various high profile security incidents.

Although in some ways Microsoft has become a victim of its own success — if a virus writer wants the maximum impact he/she is always going to target Microsoft’s systems — it is of little comfort for companies that experience service disruption due to a weakness in MS Exchange or IIS.

Ballmer is aware that the company has to raise its security game if it is to win the confidence of its customer base. “The truth of the matter is that people want more out of our products. There are many elements of being trusted — you have to protect privacy, you have to protect data integrity, you have to do a good job of having systems that are reliable and available,” says Microsoft’s CEO.

“Our systems have done quite a good job on the privacy and integrity front. But we have had on problems on the availability front where hackers disrupt business operation. It’s not unique to our platform, but as the guy that provides the most popular platform we also are the ones that are going to get hacked the most and the bar for success is the highest,” comments Ballmer.

Consequently, Microsoft has already taken steps to make security a “front & centre priority for all our teams to focus on,” he says.
The renewed security focus is likely to slow down further product development within the software giant. During February, Microsoft postponed all Windows development so its project teams could re-examine code for potential security loopholes. The vendor’s security drive has also extended into Visual Studio.NET, where the vendor has embedded greater security functionality into its development environment.

“We need to provide tools to our customers to ensure that they secure their systems… There is a lot of flexibility in these systems and people can [accidentally] leave an opening. Last but not least [we need] to help people update software much more easily,” says Ballmer.

“When there is a problem we have to ensure that the customers can recover their systems very quickly, patch them quickly and not have a big business disruption,” says Ballmer.
“[That is] the major lesson from the Code Red incident… We had a fix out before the virus ever occurred but nobody ever installed it because we don’t give them the tools to make that easy — we will this year. Number two: how long it took to recover from those problems. In all those dimensions we have major efforts under way,” pledges Ballmer.
Regardless of Microsoft’s in-house initiatives, it is going to take more than code clear ups or secure tools before companies begin trusting the software player. Although recent announcements from the company are all designed to improve Microsoft’s security reputation, it is going to take time to convince users.

“[Microsoft] fully understands that this [security] is serious [and] that they screwed up in terms of paying attention to security,” says Ashim Pal, program director, web & collaboration strategies, Meta Group.

“[Microsoft is] on the one hand trying to acquire a role as a much more trusted component of client’s environment, but at the same time they have a poor reputation. They are doing the right things in terms of improving their reputation, but the code clear up doesn’t fix [its] reputation issues,” he adds.

According to Pal, Microsoft is going to have to live with people putting a microscope to its actions from both a security and a trust perspective. “This is something that they are going to have to prove over the next two years,” says Pal.

Early adopters, Emirates Group’s E-Ventures team has already built up considerable experience with Visual Studio.NET. The proof of concept team is already examining the mobile opportunities of .NET and the possibility of using tools such as Passport, contained within the myservices.com initiative — formally known as Hailstorm.
According to David Robertson, emerging technologies manager, E-Ventures team, companies must look at the security issue from a two-fold perspectives. Firstly, there is the privacy and confidence issues of whether people and businesses trust Microsoft with their data and secondly there is the physical systems security approach.

“We can’t do anything to change the consumer’s psychology on a product. That is a big task that Microsoft has on its hands — that is a challenge that Microsoft has to face,” says Robertson.

||**||IV|~||~||~|However, in terms of system security in Visual Studio.NET Microsoft has enhanced the processes and methodologies involved in development. “[Visual Studio.NET] has more layers of security because you have secure web directories and applications. Also you can put security on a programming level and scale security. [Companies] can have security as tight as [they] want and as loose as [they] want. It depends on the information you have and want to serve,” explains Amir Meskovic, R&D manager, E-ventures, Emirates. But within the region, Visual Studio.NET and Microsoft’s .NET vision have still to gain momentum. With the exception of Emirates’ E-ventures Group and Kuwait-based Public Warehousing Company (PWC), few organisations have begun to seriously investigate the possibilities of .NET.

“I haven’t seen too much interest in this [Visual Studio.NET] to be honest,” says Pal during a recent visit to the region. “The only people who are paying close attention to this are those building web applications where is solves problems,” he adds.

Despite .NET evangelism by Microsoft’s local office there is going to be a ‘time lag’ the region’s local companies to get up to speed on .NET. “[Microsoft has] been very successful, in terms of evangelising Visual Studio.NET as a development platform… [but] there are issues in terms of code migration and skills,” says Pal.

“It is going to be slow going. You always have to assume a certain lag, while [companies] evaluate it, pilot it, train people, and put it into production. Most organisations are going to be rather more conservative… simply because there isn’t a problem that they need to solve right now with Visual Studio.NET,” he adds.

Regardless of the low numbers of ISVs around the Gulf, Ballmer is confident that emerging markets such as the Middle East are going to be among the first to begin development for the .NET platform. Microsoft’s CEO highlights the work that advanced Microsoft end user organisations in the region, such as Dubai Ports & Customs and Kuwait’s PWC, have done.

“If you were to ask me ‘where do you expect .NET to get most popular most quickly?’ It is in the emerging markets, not the developed markets. I have actually seen faster take-up on newer technologies [in the emerging markets,]” says Ballmer.

“Amongst the influential technology people [companies] we see faster uptake on new things than we do on developed markets. In emerging markets they will look at Visual Studio.NET. On top of that our people in various countries around the Gulf are spending a lot of time at developer conferences,” he adds.

For many companies it is likely that they will begin to experiment with .NET development and web services internally. For the time being the majority of support for Microsoft’s .NET toolset is over the Internet or via e-mail. However, few organisations are experimenting with component-based development work. “We’re not seeing organisations compiling UDDI information,” says Robertson.

Meskovic adds, “who in this part of the world is running stuff on .NET, let alone developing web services... We are a multinational organisation and it doesn’t make a difference what the organisations in the local market are doing in terms of technology. What we are looking at is integrating with global distribution systems or probably with the database systems we have internally. We’re looking to deploy web services running across five or six web sites that we think would be of value to the customers,” he adds.||**||

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