Uncertainty surrounds Microsoft’s .Net plans

Microsoft Corp.’s initial presentation of its .Net vision raised many questions – such as how the new on-line software services plan will affect the future of Windows 2000 and Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM) and how the Internet services will be licensed.

.Net is described by Microsoft as a platform for next-generation Internet applications. It will include new development tools, such as Visual Studio.Net; a new user interface, called the .Net User Experience; and Microsoft-hosted “building-block services,” including Identity and Personalization, all to be delivered over the next two or more years.

Industry analysts said Microsoft must prove that developing applications using .Net will be faster and easier than other approaches such as Enterprise JavaBeans. That will in large part depend on the tools Microsoft is expected to demonstrate to developers: Visual Studio 7, which is due next year, and the future Visual Studio.Net follow-up.

Also at issue is the fact that Microsoft has given no indication of how it will price its hosted building-block services. “If a developer can get the work done faster by using a .Net service, that’s a great advantage,” said Sam Patterson, CEO of ComponentSource Inc., an Atlanta-based on-line marketplace for software components. “[But] corporations need to know what this will cost them.”

Others worry about the security implications of depending on Microsoft-hosted services. But Gene McNair, electronic-business systems administrator at Schneider Automation Inc. in North Andover, Mass., said he would consider using Microsoft’s proposed identity service for his company’s Web site aimed at partners and customers. “It’s not really conceptually different from going to VeriSign for digital certificates,” McNair said.

Another uncertainty is the fate of Microsoft technologies such as DCOM, which some say is largely superseded by Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), the Microsoft-driven proposed standard for program-to-program communication that is to be the “glue” between various .Net services.

Microsoft is “de-emphasizing COM,” said James Kobielus, an analyst at The Burton Group in Alexandria, Va. “Very few people are using DCOM for the Internet.” But Dwight Davis, an analyst at Boston-based Summit Strategies Inc., said Microsoft is unlikely to abandon developers who have already chosen DCOM.

ComponentSource Inc. is experimenting with SOAP. “We’re seeing no scalability or performance problems,” Patterson said . But he added that Microsoft needs to explain when .Net will be ready for use in a production environment.

Also worrisome for some users is that, although hardware vendors such as Compaq Computer Corp. and Round Rock, Tex.-based Dell Computer Corp. were present at the .Net launch, few software developers or corporate users have so far stepped up to endorse the concept. “Microsoft would have done better to pull together a consortium before they announced this,” McNair said.

In addition, some question Microsoft’s commitment to open standards. “It will be really interesting to see whether they will open-source a runtime for .Net, to see how open they are going to be,” said Evan Quinn, an analyst at Hurwitz Group Inc. in Framingham, Mass. “I have a suspicion that Microsoft is going to try to out-open Sun.”

But Deepak Amin, CEO of application service provider vJungle Inc. in Bellevue, Wash., said Microsoft also might reverse course. “I wouldn’t bet my future on anyone’s open approach in the future – not Microsoft’s, not anyone’s,” Amin said.

Hovering over .Net’s future is the fate of Microsoft itself. “Adoption may be a little slower because of the DOJ case,” said Dave Smith, an analyst at GartnerGroup Inc. in Bedford, N.H., referring to the break-up order won by the U.S. Department of Justice in its antitrust suit against the company. That would split Microsoft into two companies, one for its operating systems and the rest for its various applications.

But Smith said he believes the .Net strategy may help a post-break-up applications company, if Microsoft’s promised appeal in the antitrust case is rejected. “In a post-break-up scenario, [.Net] is likely to be the core of the applications company,” Smith said, adding that he expects a Windows operating system company to “effectively atrophy.”

Because of the many blanks in the .Net plan, “it will be four years before an enterprise would look at this as a viable platform for its enterprise computing needs,” predicted William Hurley, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston.