Microsoft issues .Net report card

Microsoft Corp. Wednesday proclaimed that its two-year-old .Net initiative has entered Phase 2, but progress has been mixed so far and its ultimate vision isn’t on the verge of being realized anytime soon.

During a .Net briefing day on the software maker’s campus in Redmond, Wash., Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer took great pains to manage expectations, describing the company’s vision for “connecting information, people, disparate systems and devices” through XML-based Web services as a “long-term journey.”

Anyone who may have forgotten that Microsoft originally made that claim two years ago got a reminder on Wednesday via video excerpts from the Forum 2000 launch event, showing executives a long-term road map that would roll out over “a many-year period,” as Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates put it then.

On Wednesday, Gates issued a report card rating his company’s progress on its .Net initiative. He gave his company an “A” for rallying the industry around XML and Web services protocols such as the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), which are key to exchanging data between disparate systems that store information in differing formats. Gates also gave his company a top grade for its Visual Studio .Net tools and runtime infrastructure, which support the building and deployment of Web services.

“Less rosy,” Gates said, has been the progress in “building block services” that would enable a company to “call out” storage capabilities or access a common schedule. He issued a “C” grade on that subject, as well as on .Net’s progress in promoting the idea of software as a service, “paid for on a yearly basis and being automatically updated and improved across all your different devices.”

Gates said progress has been incomplete on federation — the idea that disparate systems such as authentication services can connect in trusted fashion between consenting companies or groups of organizations. Also getting an “I” for incomplete was Microsoft’s work on “transformative user experiences” that happen as a result of “rich XML coming down to your system — XML that helps you in your workflow, in your prioritizations, your visualizations.”

“That’s still not there,” Gates said, “but it is coming.”

The biggest hurdle Microsoft faces now that the foundation pieces have been laid is tackling the security issues that must be addressed in order for the .Net vision to gain traction, analysts said.

Although the uptake of .Net has been slow, “the uptake of all technology has been slowed by the economy,” said Chris Shilakes, a San Francisco-based financial analyst at Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc.

Shilakes said the economic slowdown in the tech sector has actually worked to Microsoft’s advantage because it’s giving the company a chance “to tighten up their technology from a server standpoint to leverage Web services.”

“When it’s ‘game on’ again for corporations in terms of deploying their technology, I think Microsoft will have closed the gap somewhat,” he said. But to accelerate .Net adoption, Microsoft will need a solid reference base of corporate customers using the new technologies, he said.

Pierre Fricke, executive vice president of Web application infrastructure at D.H. Brown Associates Inc. in Port Chester, N.Y., said .Net’s real edge over Java will be found in applications that can improve the end-user experience. He pointed to demonstrations showing consumers sharing photographs and music, and business users initiating videoconferences with colleagues at work.

But for server-based applications, Fricke said, .Net will continue to find itself in a “street fight” with Java 2 Enterprise Edition technologies.

Fricke said Microsoft’s two-year progress on .Net has gone about as he expected. “They put themselves on the radar screen,” he said. “They’re going to be relevant and important. This is not going to be Microsoft Bob.”

Phase 2 of Microsoft’s .Net initiative may have officially launched on Wednesday, but Microsoft Vice President Tom Button said the February release of the Visual Studio .Net tool set marked the real line of demarcation between Phase 1 and Phase 2. Button estimated that Microsoft spent US$3 billion to $4 billion on the four-year effort to create that tool, which features .Net Framework code that can reduce the amount of code a developer needs to write to build XML-based Web services applications.

Button said another key event signalling the transition to Phase 2 was the formation of the Web Services Interoperability (WS-I) Organization, which also includes Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM, Intel Corp., Oracle Corp. and SAP AG. Its mission is to provide implementation guidance to support companies deploying Web services, promote consistent and reliable interoperability among Web services and articulate a common industry vision for Web services.

With Wednesday’s public launch of Phase 2, Microsoft announced the delivery of Release Candidate 1 of its Windows .Net Server operating system, which builds in support for the .Net Framework. Right now, customers must download the .Net Framework if they want to use it with Windows 2000 Server.

The final product is expected to become generally available early next year.

Other new software previewed Wednesday that is aimed at advancing Microsoft’s .Net vision included a real-time communications and collaboration server, code-named Greenwich, and the second version of the Office XP Web Services Toolkit.

Also on Wednesday, Covalent Technologies Inc. released a module that will let users run Microsoft’s Active Server Pages .Net on the open-source Apache Web server, as long as they’re running on Windows.