Microsoft Corp.'s future is all about integrating software and services through the Internet.
The Redmond giant on Thursday unveiled its Microsoft .Net platform--a vision for future software and services previously referred to as Next Generation Windows Services, or NGWS.
Microsoft .Net consists of an Internet-based programming infrastructure as well as a user environment and services that support multiple devices--all built around the new extensible markup language (XML). It includes server and client software, as well as services that will be built around familiar faces like Windows, Office, and MSN and that will be linked by the Internet.
Neither a new operating system nor a new software suite, Microsoft .Net will rely on XML and a series of building blocks that Microsoft will host and sell as subscription services.
Microsoft considers this announcement as significant as the launch of Windows and the graphical user interface.
"It's a platform for the next-generation Internet," said Bill Gates, Microsoft chair and chief software architect. "What we've been working on is how you take software and enable it across many devices. The Internet is the starting point."
Microsoft .Net includes protocols and services for PCs, Web tablets, cell phones, personal digital assistants, and smart phones. Servers at application service providers or inside corporations will provide the services across the Internet that support these devices.
Microsoft .Net is not like Windows, a product in a box, said Steve Ballmer, Microsoft president and chief executive officer. "With software as a service, it's not as easy to say what it is."
Users Get Control
At the heart of the Microsoft .Net vision is a new user interface that's intended to be personalised and secure. Microsoft will blend Internet and communication tools such as instant messaging and e-mail with productivity tools such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Hypothetically, an XML-based universal canvas will let you work with data across applications and Web sites within a single view.
And all of your information will exist on the Internet with XML tags, so it will be sorted intelligently. As soon as you define yourself through authentication, your information will be downloaded to the device you're using. Software itself can be downloaded and installed on new devices without you entering a lot of user information.
You'll be able to work offline and have your changes synchronised across all devices you use when you go online. Of course, a lot of the Microsoft .Net platform depends on device and network evolution. Microsoft is developing Microsoft .Net with high-speed third-generation wireless networks (3G), as well as new devices like Web tablets, Web TV, Pocket PC, and smart phones in mind.
Beyond multiple devices, you'll have multiple means of input, such as speech and handwriting recognition. Microsoft demonstrated a Web tablet that is able to recognise handwriting and then transform it to type. The tablet also has EReader software for electronic books. Integrated browsing and stored personal information means you could go to the Web and purchase a new book with one or two clicks.
Identity Travels With You
Microsoft will expand its Passport services for MSN for the user authentication system. Today, Passport stores your user identification information for use across MSN products including Hotmail and MSN Mobile. In the Microsoft .Net platform, Passport will include a personal information agent, hosted by Microsoft, that lets you receive notifications, as well as access, edit, and delete your information from any device.
New privacy technologies including smart cards and biometric identification will keep your information protected. XML SmartTags will recognise words or objects as you type. For example, a company name in a business letter would automatically create a button that links you to the company's Web site and to your database of information on the company.
Microsoft demonstrated a user interface that appears to be a combination of the new MSN interface and Microsoft Outlook Digital Dashboard. Across the top are menu items for Home, Mail, Planner, Contacts, Documents, and Web Links. And on the left are toolbars for the particular document or e-mail you're working on, as well as controls for the Windows Media player.
Small businesses will be able to take advantage of the BCentral component of the Microsoft .Net platform. Provided you host your site on BCentral, you can access your tasks, e-mail leads, and other information from multiple devices.
On the desktop, Outlook Web services delivered through Digital Dashboard can integrate Web and Office applications with your company information.
With the development of the SOAP standard for XML, XML becomes a program-to-program protocol, so data can be exchanged between companies even if you use Windows 2000 and your client uses UNIX servers.
How the Microsoft .Net platform will unfold is yet to be seen. Microsoft is encouraging application development, but questions remain as to what standards beyond XML the myriad software and services will support. Microsoft says you won't need Windows to access Microsoft .Net services, but how limited might you be?
While the full platform won't roll out until 2002 or later, Microsoft promises Windows.Net 1.0 sometime in 2001 and plans to ship later this year Visual Studio 7, a new version of its developer toolset that supports XML-based Web service development.
"MSN and BCentral will be '.Netified' next year," Ballmer said. And new, as-yet-to-be-named subscription services should also appear next year, he adds.
While the Microsoft .Net platform sounds like a lot of talk and waiting, today's services like the new MSN (in beta), Windows Millennium Edition, and Outlook's Digital Dashboard preview the kind of integrated entertainment, services, and communication Microsoft has in mind.
"And Windows isn't going away," Ballmer adds. "We'll bridge the .Net platform with Windows.Net."