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Win2k successor Whistler slips as MS strokes developers

But .NET is closer than you thought...

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Microsoft's .NET strategy is, as we've suspected for some time, closer than you might think. But the next version of Win2k, Whistler, turns out to be a little further off. At its Professional Developers Conference yesterday the company opened up on some of the components of .NET, made it clear it would take the tried and tested path by bidding for the hearts and minds of developers, and slipped-in the six months delay to Whistler.

But really, although Whistler was described as the first fully .NET-enabled version of Windows, these are two separate projects, albeit ones that are going to be, er, integrated. And the delay to Whistler is maybe even positive, because it's likely been caused by Microsoft planning to do some interesting things with it.

At root Whistler will be a tidied-up, optimised and honed version of Windows 2000, so in that sense you could view it in a similar light to the Win98, Win98SE, WinME series. The basic work's done, but we can do an easy annual retread for the upgrade revenue. But Microsoft has had alternate UI notions kicking around in the works for a couple of years; at one point they might have made it in WinME, but the company backed off. Whistler is now going to ship with .NET Web Forms, which will make it possible to skin extensible user interfaces onto the platform. This isn't either original or rocket science, but it'll make the OS more attractive and flexible, and actually it's an essential part of .NET at the client end.

Microsoft intends .NET to cater for all kinds of shapes and sizes of client, and to be a service delivery platform. So although The company's execs have determinedly occupied trenches, occasionally lobbing mortar shells at the likes of Compaq, in order to defend the integrity of the "Windows Experience" for years, .NET requires a change of plan. It has to be possible for users and developers to modify the UI depending on platform, application and purpose. So out goes the general purpose Windows Experience, in comes the improved user experience, which can be single or limited purpose if you like.

At the server end the .NET enterprise servers, surprise surprise, will consist of the next releases of the usual suspects - SQL Server, Exchange et al. Clearly these have been under development for some while, which reinforces one's suspicions that Microsoft's claims that it's betting the company on .NET are largely marketing hype, and that the whole thing is mainly about recasting developments that are already taking place on the Web in Microsoft corporate colours, and hooking all the bits together. But then, that's one of the things Microsoft does best.

The developer aspect of the deal is familiar, but none the worse for it. The .NET Framework is a set of classes and libraries that will act as building blocks for .NET apps, and alpha versions, along with alphas of Visual Studio.NET (the software formerly known as Visual Studio 7) are being dished out this week. But don't knock it - one of the secrets of Microsoft's success is the way it's looked after its developers, it's not all horses' heads in beds, oh no.

It gets more intriguing when it comes to XML. Microsoft has Xlang in the works, which Paul Maritz describes as an XML business-process automation workflow language. This of course will be used to develop services at the server end. Producing effective developer tools is of course the second half of Microsoft's traditional developer-stroking operation, so this one could be critical.

But here's the bit to watch. According to Maritz Microsoft intends to hand over to the relevant standards bodies the "core intellectual property" of various runtime services for its programming languages. Exactly, or even approximately, what these are wasn't made clear, but presumably it's all part of that intricate dance we'll be able to watch over the next couple of years. Microsoft will keep loudly shouting that it supports open standards, while most of the rest of the world remains disbelieving, and accuses it of duplicity and backsliding at every available opportunity. We'll see - but on previous experience, by then it might be too late... ®

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