To fully exploit the Internet as it's going to look over the next few years (ie, Internet: the next generation), organisations must expose themselves programmatically' online, says Paul Maritz, the Microsoft group vice president of the platforms strategy and developer group.
With the help of a slick video featuring an accident-prone Steve Masters apparently of Seinfeld sitcom fame, Maritz last week argued the case for transforming the Internet into a services-rich platform. Such a platform, built on the back of Microsoft's XML-based .NET (dot-net) environment, would let individuals use personalised services provided, or arranged, more or less instantly via online wireless devices. In Maritz's scenario, it would be transparent to the individual if the personalised service required interaction with one or many organisations behind the scenes.
"We want to develop Web services that expose the functionality, the business logic, the value that you add across the Internet - expose it programmatically," Maritz said. "When we really start to use the Internet as an information bus [it will] allow people to pull together the information they want and have more satisfying experiences."
While the video showed Masters more as an efficient idiot rather than a satisfied customer, it did demonstrate the potential of an information bus' type Internet.
The plot went roughly like this: Masters is away from his home town when he is run down by a bicycle courier, and while lying on the footpath he uses his smart phone' to call his regular doctor's office; the receptionist quizzes him about his injury (ankle); a GIS functionality within his smart phone signals his location and the receptionist identifies two appropriate orthopaedic specialists within limping distance. The receptionist's system tells her that Masters' health insurance cover is only 80 per cent at the nearest specialist while he's 100 per cent covered for the slightly more distant doctor. She relays this to Masters and he chooses the closest doctor; the same receptionist checks the specialist's schedule, finds she's available and makes an appointment; the receptionist asks Masters if he wants his medical records (text and image) available online to the specialist; Masters says yes and the specialist is authorised for this access (voice or bio recognition possibly working in the backgound); the ins-urance payment pro-cess is initiated; he hobbles around the corner for treatment.
This all happened within a five-minute phone call. On crut-ches, Masters leaves the specialist's office. He is run down by another bicycle courier. End video.
Imagine the systems integration hassles that would lie behind delivering the service as described above. Maritz claims that .Net products and services delivered by Microsoft and partners would ultimately make such work relatively easy (but remember .NET will take several years to roll out).
"His medical records information [could be] stored in a future .NET storage service and he controls access to that information. It's an example of storing personal state, personal preferences, important information, out on the Internet, and then retaining control of it."
"More importantly, what we saw was a number of Web service-enabled businesses, cooperating together programmatically across the Internet," Maritz added. "There were the Web services that the receptionist was invoking and all of those were coming together in what to her looked like a single experience."
According to Maritz, to enable such scenarios Microsoft is working on a common programming model' for the Next Generation Internet that is based on accepted, open, Internet standards, in particular the XML standard. This would let Microsoft and developers build to this model and call on the services it offers (see .NET white paper extract starting page 10). Other key technologies include the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) protocol (which Maritz described as "essentially the protocol that lets XML travel over the Internet") which Microsoft submitted, jointly with IBM, to the World Wide Web Consortium.
"We believe that with this common programming model, and the set of standards laid down, we can start to build some very exciting and useful solutions," he added.
Third-party .NET services are crucial to Microsoft's strategy. To help bootstrap' the industry towards its vision, Microsoft will invest $US2 billion over the next three years to enable industry partners, independent developers and corporate IT developers to build Microsoft .NET services.
Early offerings to the development community include Visual Studio 7, or VisualStudio.NET, a prerelease version of which will be given to developers this month at Microsoft's Professional Developers' Conference in Orlando, Florida. The full Visual Studio.Net development suite won't be available until 2002 or later. A version of Visual Studio 7 to be introduced next year will include some of the capabilities that developers need to build applications for the .Net platform, including support for the SOAP and enhanced XML support.
Visual Studio.Net falls under the Microsoft.Net services push, where developers build building blocks. The goals of the building blocks are to make applications easy to develop and integrate as well as to give developers the ability to project information to users when and where they need it, via whatever types of devices they require. Visual Studio is currently in a limited beta-testing phase.
New features in Visual Studio.Net include Drag-and-Drop Web Services development and a Web Form Designer. Drag-and-Drop Web Services enable developers to drag a task, such as calendaring, directly into a project so developers do not have to write reams of code for every program. The Web Form Designer is a graphical designer in which code or Web Services components can be dragged and dropped right into a project.
Microsoft also demonstrated a new aspect of BizTalk Server at Forum 2000, the BizTalk Application Designer. Built on top of Visio 2000, this feature enables developers to add business actions into Web services. The biggest benefit, according to BizTalk group manager Amit Mital, is that it enables business analysts to change the business processes without involving the developer.
Also new is a programming language dubbed C# (C Sharp). This is a language derived from C and C++ that provides a way for developers to build applications and components for the .Net platform, according to Tony Goodhew, Microsoft's Visual C++ product manager.
Bob Trott contributed to this report. David Beynon was a guest of Microsoft at the Forum 2000 event, held in Redmond, Washington on June 22.
Under the Microsoft .Net hood
Microsoft is adding new products and tying its existing lines to the Internet:
Windows.Net: Windows 2000 follow-on;
MSN.Net: MSN with added services;
Personal Subscription Services: Consumer subscription services;Office.Net: Online version of Office;Visual Studio.Net: Tools to create services;SmartTags: IntelliSense for Web content;"Natural" interface: Improved UI.
Joining the crowd
Other vendors are already pursuing a services architecture with the following offerings.
HP e-speak: An XML framework for delivering Web services.
IBM WebSphere and Pervasive Computing: Combines application development with server-centric platform.iPlanet: Application and directory servers offer hosted infrastructure.
Bowstreet Web Factory: Platform for linking customised XML services.
WebOS myWebOS: Online OS.