Four years ago, CIOs worried that .Net, which Microsoft was proclaiming a revolutionary new software architecture, was just another name for lock-in. “I’m not confident that Microsoft .Net will be compliant with open standards,” Brett Kottman, then the e-commerce director for Excellence in Motivation, told CIO magazine in 2001.
He wasn’t alone. In a CIO Research Report from that year, seven out of 10 CIOs said they wouldn’t adopt .Net. Just one in four said Microsoft’s motivation for launching .Net was technical; almost 60 percent said the motivation was marketing.
Fast-forward to earlier this year when FedEx executive VP and CIO Rob Carter built a Web service that allows his people to print to a nearby FedEx Kinko’s from inside Windows Office applications. He used .Net to build it. But here’s the surprising part: On the back end, the platform it connects to is not Windows and, says Carter, “It’s really of no consequence that it’s not.”
But Windows has never connected easily to anything but Windows. Nor, for that matter, has vendor’s software easily linked with anyone else’s. Indeed, CIOs used to be defined by which technology architecture they bet on, and the software business used to be defined by which vendors got CIOs to bet on their stuff. As Rick Berk, the CIO of private bank Brown Brothers Harriman, puts it, “Vendors have always created things to pin us down.”
So how can Carter be so casual about mixing architectures when that’s always been excruciatingly complex and expensive and therefore ill-advised? What happened to lock-in?
Web services standards happened. If your native tongue is .Net or J2EE, C# or Java, WebLogic or WebSphere, Windows or Linux, or anything else, all countries are starting to communicate using the lingua franca of XML and associated specs like UDDI, WSDL and SOAP. And so far, software vendors have adhered to those standards in their products, including Microsoft with .Net.
After decades of holding customers captive inside the walls of proprietary software, Microsoft and its competitors are selling products such as .Net that help tear down those walls. Why?
The answer is, the market made them do it.
CIOs Made Them Do It
“They didn’t really have a choice,” says Brandie Fennell, CIO of the Mortgage Bankers’ Association of America. “We were going in this direction anyway,” asserts Marc West, CIO of H&R Block.
That direction is a product of the profound change in IT brought on by Web services. The CIO’s entire solar system is tilting on its axis, away from technology and toward services. The religion of technology is giving way to the agnosticism of development. And the foundation of the IT industry is shifting from vendors to integrators and services companies. At the same time, the CIO’s role is changing. Once judged by the efficiency of the technology architecture that he bet on, the CIO is now judged by the value of the services he provides to the company, to partners and to customers.
Nolan Jones, CIO of the Colorado State Department of Revenue, is using .Net, Avanade and other technologies to build the new Colorado State Titling and Registration System (CSTARS) for registering motor vehicles, but “the .Net aspect of this is just in the background,” he says. “All of this is focused on business process, not tools. What’s been nice is we haven’t heard, ‘Well, that’s a system limitation, we don’t do that.’ It’s more like, ‘What’s your process, how can we unify that process across counties?'”
“The real question is, Do individual vendors matter?” asks Hossein Moiin, VP of technical strategy at T-Mobile International. “And the answer more and more is, No, they do not.”
For the software vendors, it’s a cruel irony. In a world running on Web services standards, technology platforms are fungible commodities. Once dreaded by CIOs as Microsoft’s next big lock-in strategy, .Net is now applauded by CIOs as a nice development framework that fosters the technology neutrality they’re learning to expect.
The shift from technology expert to process maven will not be easy for many CIOs. If they don’t provide value now, it won’t be the vendors’ fault. It will be theirs.
The “Bet the Company Thing”
Microsoft introduced the term “.Net” in June 2000, in a six-page white paper called “Microsoft .Net: Realizing the Next Generation Internet.” A judge had just ordered the company split in two and, predictably, its stock price was suffering. In its white paper, Microsoft used the word “revolution” (in all its variations) nine times and the phrase “next generation” or “new generation” six times. Bill Gates said that it was a “bet the company thing.”
.Net, it seemed, was supposed to brand Microsoft’s software business under one umbrella term. But .Net was also supposed to be a product—or products—although what kind wasn’t clear. The white paper spoke of “constellations of computers” and embedding products in an “electronic fabric,” and promised “zero management” for end users and a “new era of dynamic trading relationships.” The paper cited XML and Web services heavily as some of what would make .Net go, but it wasn’t clear how, or to what end.
Joel Spolsky, a software developer and now a frequent blogger on software development issues, summed up the attitude toward the .Net fanfare at the time: “I’m not saying there’s nothing new in .Net,” Spolsky wrote in 2000. “I’m saying there’s nothing there at all.”
For the next two years .Net came to describe nearly anything forged in the Redmond smithy. Microsoft’s major products gained a .Net appendage: Windows Server.net, Office.net, Visual Studio.net, MSN.net, .Net Passport, .Net My Services. Vista, the company’s next operating system (it was called Longhorn at the time), was advertised as something that would be built on top of several pillars of .Net—even if it wasn’t due out for years.
.Net was ubiquitous.
Mortgage Bankers’ Fennell says that when .Net first hit, “It was a buzzword thing. People just didn’t understand what it meant or what resources were available for it.”
By late 2002, Microsoft was retreating. CEO Steve Ballmer conceded that “We probably made [.Net] a little harder to understand than we [should] have.” Gates admitted to a “misstep” with the .Net launch, telling Wall Street that certain elements of the strategy were “premature.”
Microsoft tacked the other way and lopped off the .Net appendage from many products, notably Windows. (A few kept the suffix, including the development tools Visual Studio and Visual Basic.) Eventually many of the .Net-based features promised in the Vista OS were eliminated. (Vista isn’t due to ship until next year.)
In 2002, Gates offered a simpler definition of .Net: “Software to connect information, people, systems and services.”
But that didn’t really help; lots of software is supposed t