Microsoft message on .Net still fuzzy

Microsoft Corp. further advanced its .Net framework at Comdex in Las Vegas with the beta release of VisualStudio.Net and through presentations about the features of both the framework and the development tool. However, some attendees of the show complained that the software vendor’s message still left them befuddled over what the strategy will mean in the long run.

The .Net architecture, announced in June, is a platform developers can use to create Web services. The framework creates a middleware layer that lets Windows applications share Web services with software built in other languages and operating systems. .Net is based on a 64-bit operating system, revamped tools and a host of standards based on XML. As part of its Comdex package of news, Microsoft said the first beta release of VisualStudio.Net, a key component of the .Net framework, can be ordered through the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) Web site.

Charles Sterling, Microsoft Message Queue product manager, said the company has bet its future on .Net which embraces the notion of “software as a service.” The new platform continues all the technical features available to developers in Windows 2000 and expands on them by adding Web services, Sterling said.

Microsoft hopes its latest articulation of the .Net framework and the release of its VisualStudio.Net beta will motivate developers who are already building Web services to construct next-generation applications more rapidly.

Sterling said developers who receive a beta version of VisualStudio.Net will find they can work in any of the 17 programming languages it supports, including the four that Microsoft provides, JavaScript, C++, C# and Visual Basic.Net, from a unified environment. Microsoft’s Visual FoxPro is also partly included in the development tool beta.

“You can write in any language you want to and you get to use all the richness that Windows provides,” Sterling said. “Whatever skillset you bring to the table is what you will program in.”

It is easier to write Windows applications in the .Net framework because it takes the Win32 API and makes it hierarchical and intuitive across all the languages, Sterling said. If a developer wants to write in Cobol, .Net provides the “wiring” that facilitates the trading of Web services, he added. The VisualStudio.Net beta also includes more wizards and drag-and-drop features among other productivity functions.

Uphill battle

Alma Tuck, a software developer from Provo, Utah, who also runs a Web site support business called, said Microsoft is trying to make it easier for developers to build Web sites. However it’s an uphill battle to try to make such Web site creation easier across so many languages, he added.

“If I’m working on something special… most likely Microsoft hasn’t built the library that contains code for that,” Tuck said, adding that his clients are asking him to build rich features for their Web sites like never before.

But participants in a Comdex panel discussion said Microsoft’s .Net framework is a clever strategy, though one that still seems nebulous in some ways.

When applications no longer sit on the operating system, but are accessed by a Web browser, and Web server software consists of only a database, scripting language and other services like streaming media, Microsoft’s dominance will be questioned, said Dan Kusnetzky, program vice-president for systems software at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.

Anticipating these trends, Microsoft has had to rush to create a platform above the browser and the Web server that it can own and then drive people back into the Microsoft fold, Kusnetzky said.

“It’s pretty clear that Microsoft’s .Net strategy is an attempt to insert Microsoft software in the middle of Web-based applications and make themselves a critical part of the equation once again,” he added.

Microsoft is using familiar methods, Kusnetzky said. Companies that keep buying upgrades to leading Microsoft products such as Windows 2000, Exchange 2000 and SQL Server 2000 will have the .Net components in their environments. After a large enough installed base is established, Microsoft will roll out an application that requires the usage of .Net.

“All of a sudden, people will be running on an application platform that is one level higher than the browser and one level higher than the Web server and all the people who are competing just on the browser and the server lose because they no longer control what’s going on,” Kusnetzky said. “I think this is one of the most incredibly clever strategies to put something out in people’s hands and get them to use it.”

There was some speculation among the panellists that Microsoft’s strategy also intends to get .Net implemented before there is a conclusion in the U.S. government’s antitrust suit against the company now pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The theory goes that if Microsoft can get .Net off the ground, it would be harder to decouple the company as recommended by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Prepackaged data

Another panellist, Chuck Toussieng, manager of Digital Island Inc., said Microsoft’s .Net initiative appears to be a way to start serving applications over the Internet.

“We are seeing more and more packaging of information in XML which is much easier for people to evolve to,” Toussieng said. “These products and methods where you can send information between disparate processes over an Internet connection… is a base level allowing all these applications to speak to each other.”

David Hayers, a strategy consultant for British Airways PLC, agreed that the .Net initiative appears to be an ASP (application service provider) strategy, but it was still unclear.

“I think it’s a way of Microsoft getting into renting software,” Hayers said. “If you go through the browser up to .Net, do you have to go out and buy your shrink-wrapped Office 2000? Can’t you just rent it through the ‘net?”

– IDG News Service