.NET remains point of contention

Microsoft's planned release of the Windows .NET Server 2003 operating system drew cheers and jeers at the Comdex trade show, where a panel of developers and technology experts faced off in a debate over Microsoft's emerging Web-based development platform.

Microsoft was the obvious missing link in the debate over the merits of its .NET development environment. The company was asked to take part but declined, said debate moderator Paul Gillin, vice president of TechTarget.com Inc. Instead, the two sides were made up of an executive from one of its biggest rivals, Sun Microsystems Inc., and three industry pundits.

One of the most prominent complaints raised during the debate took issue with the fact that Web-based applications built using .NET developer tools are currently only designed to run on Microsoft servers. The software maker has positioned Windows as the only server operating system suitable for hosting .NET applications.

That approach is one that backers of the competing Java development platform are most critical of, said Mark Herring, senior director of marketing with Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java and Web services division, who argued against .NET.

For one, "with multiple vendors you can get the price down," Herring said, using as an example the Java camp, which is backed by multiple competing server software vendors, including IBM Corp. and BEA Systems Inc., as well as Sun.

No one on the panel disputed that one of Microsoft's main goals with Windows .NET Server 2003, due for general release in April 2003, was to lure more developers to its platform. However, .NET proponents here explained that .NET applications running on Windows servers now more than ever are designed to work with IT systems that are made up of various operating systems such as Unix and Linux.

".NET will only run on Windows, but it lets you use other platforms with it," said Don Jones, an analyst with BrainCore.NET LLC, who joined the panel as a Microsoft proponent. "The underlying standards (it supports) allow it to communicate with other Web services. So it doesn't matter if another Web service is running on Linux."

Tom Head, a self-employed developer and technology consultant in Los Angeles who watched the debate, agreed that Microsoft's efforts to upgrade all of its software around .NET makes Windows a much better citizen in mixed IT environments.

"What I've seen of .NET is that it's a very well thought out framework," he said in an interview after the debate. "It's the most open thing Microsoft has ever done. The problem is, everyone is left with the history of Microsoft, which is that it's not open."

The history he refers to was described by panel members as the "embrace and extend" strategy. Critics say Microsoft has historically latched on to industry standard technologies, then tweaked them so that they lose compatibility with non-Windows systems. Opponents of .NET warned that Microsoft might do the same thing to emerging Web services standards such as XML (Extensible Markup Language), SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) and UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery and Integration), considered the "Yellow Pages" of Web services.

The fact that Microsoft has engineered .NET Web services to run best on the Windows .NET Server 2003 does not mean that the company is trying to close off customers to competing server platforms, Jones said. Rather, it illustrates basic principles of business, he argued.

"They're a publicly traded company with stock holders to answer to," he said. "They want to dominate their field as any good old American company wants to do."

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