Running a 21st century information appliance with 20th century software is not unlike powering an airliner with steam engines.
That’s Microsoft’s stated rationale, anyway, for pushing ahead with .Net, its vision for computing. Introduced with great fanfare a little more than a year ago, .Net promises to use the Internet to seamlessly interconnect devices, data and applications. Based on XML, .Net is designed to allow users to access applications and data wherever they may be on whatever device is most convenient.
But is .Net good news for the software giant’s customers? As details of Microsoft’s .Net strategy emerge, observers are raising questions about the risks that ac-company such a radical shift in software direction. Additionally, many Microsoft customers may soon find themselves being hauled onto the Internet against their will. “Current Microsoft customers won’t be able to buy software that isn’t .Net in certain applications,” says Craig Roth, a senior program director at the Meta Group, a technology research company in Stamford, Conn. “The old way simply won’t be an option. We will see .Net become the standard.”
The Microsoft .Net structure consists of several different components. The technology’s primary development tools are the .Net Framework, a set of programming interfaces, and Visual Studio.Net, a multilanguage suite of programming tools. Another essential element is the .Net Building Block Services, which handle message delivery, file storage, user preferences and other activities, making it easy for users to move among applications, services and even environments.
The Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP)?which uses XML syntax to send text commands across the Internet?will allow .Net to automatically leverage the Internet’s powerful communication capabilities to move information between devices and applications. “Applications and devices will be able to contact each other and exchange data without the user’s awareness or active participation,” says Jean-Christophe Cimetiere, CEO and lead analyst of TechMetrix, a Waltham, Mass.-based research company. The .Net applications will be able to run on any OS that supports the .Net run-time platform, including Windows 95/98/ME, Windows NT, Windows CE and Windows 2000, as well as the upcoming Windows XP. It’s even possible that versions of the run-time platform could be built for operating systems other than Windows, claims Microsoft. Still, while the company has hinted at cross-platform portability, the reality is that on the server side the first version of .Net will be primarily dependent on Windows 2000.
Unlike Windows, .Net won’t ship as a standalone product on a specific date. Instead, the company will gradually incorporate the technology into a variety of new and existing products. Microsoft, for example, is planning to offer its Office productivity programs in subscription-based form. The company is also making all of its new software applets, including its free Hotmail e-mail product and MSN Messenger instant-messaging product, available as .Net services. “Over the next few years, we’ll see a wide range of applications, particularly ERP and CRM products, take advantage of this technology,” says Roth.
Microsoft is also hoping to lure an array of third-party software and content companies to .Net. In March, for example, eBay announced that it is adopting .Net technology with the goal of letting customers access the online marketplace on devices other than computers. In fact, some observers believe that third parties, rather than end users, will be the key to .Net’s future. “To a large extent, the future of .Net hinges on how many third-party companies Microsoft can win over,” says Roth.
The claimed key benefit to .Net is that it will enable an organization’s employees, customers and business partners to share information easily. An experienced user could write a Word document and integrate it with an Excel spreadsheet or other application and then access it from the office, at home or from a hotel room on a desktop, notebook or even a handheld.
Microsoft claims that .Net will also make applications easier to implement and manage. “Customers will be relieved of compatibility problems and related distribution headaches,” says Cimetiere. The .Net strategy also guarantees software that’s continuously and automatically upgraded. “If a bug surfaces or if a new feature becomes available, the updated software becomes available to everyone at the earliest possible moment,” Cimetiere adds.
Organizations that adopt .Net technology also stand to reap the benefit of lower up-front costs. “An enterprise will no longer have to pay the total cost of the software at the very beginning,” says Vernon Keenan, CEO and chief analyst of Keenan Vision, a San Francisco-based company that provides e-commerce analysis. But there is a downside to that arrangement: .Net’s combination product and subscription-based pricing model means that an enterprise will never have a chance to recoup its software investment. “You will just keep on paying and paying and paying,” says Keenan. But Simon Yates, an analyst at Forrester Research, a technology research company in Cambridge, Mass., thinks the pay-as-you-go model makes a lot of sense. “It lowers the total cost of ownership,” he says. “If you can rent a new application, why would you ever buy?”
Although .Net has the potential to revolutionize the way customers access and use software, early adopters face the same risks that accompany new technology. “The risk is high,” says Yates. “The technology is immature, and early releases will be buggy.” Yates advises remaining on the sidelines as long as possible, although he admits that may not be possible for Microsoft customers who will be forced to follow the .Net migration path. Some organizations, for example, may want to have access to the latest version of Office in order to reliably exchange critical documents with external business partners.
Security and privacy have emerged as two other big .Net concerns. A recent CIO.com survey found that 62 percent of IT professionals believe that .Net will increase their digital security risk. (For the full survey results, visit www.cio.com/printlinks.) Microsoft maintains that encryption and authorization tools, such as private key infrastructure and Microsoft Hailstorm (a .Net Building Block service), will safeguard users’ data. But Roth isn’t so sure. “Many of the tools are there, but it’s not exactly a secure container, and there’s the potential for gaps,” he says.
On the privacy front, critics warn that .Net will create vast, centralized, private databases of user information. Such databases would certainly be a boon to marketers. Microsoft, however, is pledging that it won’t let confidential data slip into outside hands without the user’s express permission. “But will customers believe Microsoft?” asks Keenan.
Some observers also claim that .Net won’t be able to reach its full potential until everyone has access to reliable broadband Internet connections. “Right now, we’re not even close to universal high-speed Internet access,” says Keenan. “Try accessing a .Net service on an airplane, for instance.”
Microsoft’s track record of embracing open standards to later add only proprietary extensions that are tailored toward its own servers and clients is also contributing to a sense of uneasiness about .Net. Will SOAP and XML fare any better in Microsoft’s hands than, say, Java? Keenan doesn’t think so. “It’s a typical Microsoft maneuver to grab a good idea that’s been around for years,” he says.
Legacy data integration with .Net is another potential trouble spot for many enterprises. Making old data compatible with Web services often requires extensive reengineering, and translation tools are scarce. “Legacy systems were designed a long time ago, and the data they generated wasn’t designed for Web applications,” says Cimetiere. “Making data compatible with Web applications is both a design and an integration issue.”
Still, Microsoft is confident that all of the ripples facing .Net adopters are transitory and will eventually be ironed out. Charles Fitzgerald, director of business develop-ment for Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash.-based platform strategies group, says he believes that enterprises cannot afford to ignore the combined power provided by the one-two punch of software and connectivity. He feels that Internet access speeds are poised to increase at a rate comparable to semiconductor advancements?doubling every 18 months. “Software will now ride dual waves of Moore’s law and an equivalent for connectivity,” he says.
Microsoft isn’t the only company that’s working on a software-as-a-service strategy. Software industry rivals, including IBM (WebSphere), BEA (WebLogic), Hewlett-Packard (Bluestone), Oracle (Dynamic Services) and Sun Microsystems (Sun One), are looking to Java technology to bring software users on to the Web. Microsoft’s .Net technology does not natively support Java. “There are a large number of Java developers out there, and Microsoft will have to convince developers to use its programming tools to build software for .Net,” says Cimetiere.
At Sun One’s unveiling in February, Sun CEO Scott McNealy slyly dismissed .Net as “not yet.” Microsoft counters that Sun’s strategy is outdated. “Sun’s Sun One demonstrations show purely browser-based clients where all of the logic and control lives on the server,” says Fitzgerald. “It appears that their idea of a ’modern device’ is analogous to computing circa 1960 and not reflective of Web services.”
Fitzgerald claims that .Net must be viewed as an extension of installed software, not as a substitute. “What XML Web services make possible is built-in integration across applications, whether those applications are inside a single corporation, in multiple companies or even on desktops,” he says. “This means that companies will be able to provide far better service to their customers and will be able to more efficiently automate their business processes.”
That sounds fine to Meta Group’s Roth, who notes that .Net will help businesses better cope with information flowing in from LANs, the Internet, wireless connections and other pathways. “The .Net platform will make it easier to work with information, whatever its source, wherever users roam,” he says. n