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Does MS get the net, or is it building its own again?

The .NET project is a big pile of stuff, but where the structural beef?

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Analysis Despite the extra preparation time provided by delays, Microsoft was still generating more heat than light at its great Next Generation Windows .NET announcement. The speakers were Messrs Gates, Ballmer, Maritz, Muglia and Belluzzo (no Allchin, as he's having a long holiday). Microsoft's press team must have been in overdrive, because there was almost no advance information, little selective leaking, and no public simultaneous Webcast. It was not until several hours after the meeting ended that a replay of the Webcast became available.

According to Gates, eight groups spent several months discussing aspects of a new generation of software, and he had led the one on the user experience. The result is that Microsoft's products and even its own name will be "dot-netted" by adding '.NET' (in upper case, alas). Microsoft.NET is to consist of a platform; products and services.

The products get .NETted

The platform will have some .NET building blocks, including identity; notification and messaging; personalisation; XML store; calendar; directory and search; and dynamic delivery. But the term is used more broadly for the "next generation of products and services", and these will include Windows.NET; MSN.NET; personal subscription services; Office.NET; Visual Studio.NET; and bCentral for .NET. The Microsoft.NET user experience will include a natural interface, a universal canvas (XML-based), an information agent, and smart tags.

All this cries out for a diagram or two showing how these bits and pieces fit together, but Microsoft has yet to ship one.

The demos were as usual rather strange examples of what Microsoft envisages to be the real world of business and entertainment - and the emphasis was very much on the latter. A synthesised voice said that the Dow was "down minus 64 at 10,433.74" - but why "down minus"? Why two significant digits being compared with seven significant digits? It was clearly demoware, with very little behind it.

Gates fails to nail the jelly

Gates' presentation didn't go anywhere towards nailing the project down; he presented an unstructured list of things to be considered, but there was no real vision or even logical presentation, just some vague plan to tie together whatever was there, and whatever came along. What was missing was any abstraction: it all smacked of ill-prepared ad-hoc-ism. The .NET was all going to roll out "over a many year period", but there seems to be no serious plan other than "Windows.NET version 1... next year", but "not the 100 per cent implementation". If Microsoft knows how it will all evolve beyond the general remark that "it will be more than two years before all the different services are out there," it's not telling. Could it be that we have another Cairo in the making?

The waffle level was high, even by Microsoft standards. Gates claimed the announcement was comparable in importance to that of Windows, rather than Microsoft's Internet conversion announcement, but as usual there was nothing new, nothing that someone somewhere was not already doing. Considering what Gates said, a reasonable assessment would be to say that Microsoft intends to integrate anything that comes along, and has decided to pay no attention at all - at least publicly - to the break-up threat. At least it was consistent with Microsoft's protestations of innocence and claims that it would win the appeal. Gates concluded: "You could say it's a bet the company thing". Right - but what are the odds?

Bob Muglia [vp, business productivity group] addressed the user experience of .NET in a small business and an enterprise. One of the demos included what was referred to as "dynamic delivery" which seemed to be a way of receiving email while on the move without hassle. Big deal.

Muglia said there would be "traditional versions of Office for quite some time", but eventually there would be a "totally new version" called Office.NET. Muglia also said that Microsoft had been "working with carriers to take Exchange data and make it available to mobile users". Again, it's hard to see what is novel about this.

Rick Belluzzo [vp, consumer group] gave a low-level sales talk, pointing out how the mission was "to simplify daily tasks", something that the PC has made singularly more complicated for many of the knowledge workers, as Microsoft likes to call them. The second mission was "to provide easy access to people and information that you care about". There would be "more choices for creating and enjoying entertainment".

Introducing rentals

Belluzzo mentioned the possibility of "consumer subscription services", something of a holy grail for Microsoft. In response to a later question, it was clarified that a subscription model would be used for Office.NET, but not for Windows, which will stay royalty-based. Rick Sherlund of Goldman Sachs wanted to know why Office was going to be a subscription model, and the size of the investment to achieve this, but he was given no proper answer.

The key question remains: will consumers really want the kinds of services that Microsoft has in mind - and will Microsoft develop compellingly superior versions? There must be some doubt about this.

Paul Maritz [vp, platforms strategy and developer group] saw two sets of challenges: developer productivity, and going beyond HTML and browsing. His demos included a pre-release version of VisualStudio.net with calendaring, VisualBasic, and BizTalk with Visio. It was not exciting.

Steve Ballmer was the wrap-up man. "The last six months has frankly been [pause for dramatic effect...] WILD, absolutely wild!". But regrettably, it doesn't show. Since there are really no distinguishing characteristics of the next versions of Microsoft software, this .NET announcement should perhaps be seen as little more than some quite clever product renaming, at least for the time being. No doubt Microsoft will stick at it and something more substantive might come from it all, but right now, it's smoke and mirrors, folks.

Questioners were evidently pre-screened, since they were called by number. Clearly the question had to be put about what would happen if Microsoft were split up, so this was wheeled on first. Ballmer said that his focus was not on break-up, but on building the right software. Microsoft was pursuing its "judicial opportunity" and he expected "to prevail on remaining one company". It was "premature to speculate on anything else". Another questioner was curious if Microsoft thought the plan would have a positive impact on the courts. This was not answered. ®

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