Microsoft bets big on XML

The XML (extensible markup language) revolution will be as important as the advent of the Internet itself in terms of its impact on the computing environment. And Microsoft Corp. is underscoring this point by investing US$5.5 billion in research and development this financial year, mainly in the seven software businesses built around its XML platform .Net.

Steve Ballmer, chief executive officer of Microsoft, said the investment will mainly be in core enabling technologies surrounding Windows, Office, MSN, home entertainment, CE mobility, server and tools, and in business solutions.

Speaking at Microsoft’s Apac Fusion 2002 partner event last week, Ballmer noted that each revolution in computing brought with it a new set of technologies, for example, the PC and DOS, graphical user interfaces and Windows, and the Internet with Internet Explorer and Internet Information Services.

“We think XML is the next major platform and .Net is our technology to help you value-add around that platform,” he said.

Describing XML as the “lingua franca” of the Internet, Ballmer said it held the answer to enterprise application integration, “cut and paste” application integration, and business-to-business e-commerce. “The future is XML … one architected approach to allow systems to talk together.”

The important thing in computing, he pointed out, is to allow people to leverage on each other’s work and to share it with others. The Internet did this by allowing users to leverage on communications standard. XML, he said, will be even more important -because it will serve an even more general purpose function.

XML will help enterprises address the number one issue that is facing them today, which is interoperability, he said. “The industry is coming together on this standard, for an architected approach to interoperability.”

But he acknowledged that Microsoft needed to recover from security issues. “Nimda and Code Red were a wake up call for us a year ago,” he said.

With .Net, customers will have to have absolute confidence in the core technologies that Microsoft will deliver. “They cannot have any doubts about the security and reliability,” he said.

He added that while capabilities and features are still important, security and trustworthiness are now top priority.

From Microsoft’s perspective, technology developments in XML will happen in three waves, said Ballmer.

The “Now” wave is taking place with strong XML support being built into products. An example is the Windows .Net Server, which will be rolled out early next year.

A year from now, a new version of SQL Server will herald the next wave. Code-named Yukon, it will feature XML as its native data type, and use .Net as its programming language.

In two years’ time, Ballmer sees XML making inroads into the Windows client. It will be XML from bottom up, from the file system to the user interface, he said.

He acknowledged that there will be competition from Sun, Oracle, IBM and Linux, “but that does not mean we can’t cooperate”. He pointed out that Microsoft is working with IBM in the Web services interoperability group. It is also studying how the Linux community shares resources and provides support, to see how Microsoft can leverage communities as a more important part of the support process.

Ballmer noted that there are about 35,000 certified Microsoft partners across the world.

In Singapore, for example, he gave the example of Singapore Computer Systems, which built a scalable procurement engine on .Net for the shipyard and property developers, and also built a trusted hub for securing, storing and managing digital content using Web services.

Microsoft is planning to add 80 people to strengthen its partnership program in this region this year, and setting aside US$20 million for support technology training and outreach programs, and US$30 million for marketing.

As a company, he said, if Microsoft does not keep pushing the frontiers, it will risk losing the market-leading position that it has. “We have to move forward, to add value in new ways.”