SAN MATEO (06/23/2000) - Although the notion of buying software as a network service is hardly new, Microsoft Corp.'s sweeping Microsoft.Net initiative, launched this week, will accelerate the development and adoption of this emerging computing model, competitors and analysts said.
The .Net platform scraps Microsoft's Windows desktop PC-centric design in favor of XML-driven server-based services that run across many platforms and can be accessed by any client device. With its focus on interoperability and improved "user experience," Web services will facilitate intercompany communication and make the Web more attractive to consumers, Microsoft officials claimed.
The shift also means that the company's star player -- the Windows operating system -- will become but one piece of the puzzle.
"Windows isn't going away ... but as we think about the challenges ahead, this will be the platform programming model of the future, and the Windows platform will participate in it," said Steve Ballmer, president and CEO of Microsoft, in Redmond, Washington.
The .Net platform is made up of user interfaces and building-block services for developers. Two early examples of Microsoft Web services are Orchestration, which is a BizTalk-based service that connects business processes across multiple operating systems, and Passport, which stores personal information for consumers online.
The introduction of specific tools means that it will be easier for enterprises to enhance applications with externally facing services.
"There's an opportunity that enterprises have to create applications internally that work with not only their other apps internally, but with Web services as well," said Chris Le Tocq, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc., in San Jose, California. "This is a new platform, and a new platform implies new applications, and that's an opportunity for the enterprise to take advantage of external services within their applications."
Companies already building their operations around services say that this model gives them more flexibility and scale.
"If you're going to build something, instead of trying to build it with all the capabilities you can think of and hope you have everything in there, you build an infrastructure that can change and adapt with your business processes and partners. That's the thing that's going to save me money in the long run," said Rob Bresnahan, president of Dallas-based Concite, a subsidiary of CrossMark.
Concite, a portal aimed at the packaged goods industry, is using Bowstreet Software Inc.'s Web Factory platform.
Indeed, Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., and smaller companies such as Bowstreet and WebOS.com Inc. are already adopting their server platforms to create and deploy services that can be linked together via the Web.
"They saw today that shrink-wrap technology is dead," said Steve Chazin, senior marketing manager at Bowstreet, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. "They're playing in a bigger pond than OS, where they had no competition."
Bowstreet this week, not coincidentally, launched Version 2.0 of its Web Factory, a platform for creating and linking multiple XML-based Web services, and an exchange for buying these services.
Competitors said the Web services industry will benefit from the fact that it is now the chief focus of the industry's most dynamic -- or infamous -- company.
"This area doesn't have full credibility yet, but obviously people are realizing this is a space that's going to count," said Shervin Pishevar, president and CEO of WebOS, in Columbia, Maryland, of his company, which has built an Internet-based operating system. "This kind of massive announcement will make people wake up and realize what's been happening in the underground.
[Microsoft] is legitimizing our revolution," he said.
Hewlett-Packard, which began shipping its own Internet services platform, e-speak, last December, said that features of Microsoft's .Net, such as its API, are also available via e-speak.
Steve Mills, general manager at IBM Software Group, in Somers, New York, said Microsoft could end up exposing some underlying weaknesses of Windows 2000 as it delivers the various pieces of .Net. The ground-up design of Windows 2000, and exploitative applications such as BackOffice, may not stand up to the strains of a a high-end multiplatform environment, he said.
"In a server-centric model where you are sharing application functions, your servers need a strong OS to manage all the concurrent tasks going on and to have a strong enough middleware infrastructure to deal with that," Mills said.
"I don't think it matches the design points of Windows 2000 very well." (See related story.)Competitors also were quick to point to the need for openness.
It's just questionable today as to whether Microsoft's own, proprietary infrastructure is really up to the task," said Wes Wasson, vice president of product marketing for iPlanet E-Commerce Solutions. "Certainly what is out on the market today does not seem to be architected with that in mind."
Additional reporting by Brian Fonseca, Ed Scannell, Jack McCarthy, and Stephanie Sanborn.
Joining the crowd
Other vendors are already pursuing a services architecture with the following offerings.
HP e-speak: An XML framework for delivering Web servicesIBM WebSphere and Pervasive Computing: Combines application development with server-centric platformiPlanet: Application and directory servers offer hosted infrastructureBowstreet Web Factory: Platform for linking customized XML servicesWebOS myWebOS: Online OSUnder the Microsoft.Net hoodMicrosoft 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 servicesOffice.Net: Online version of OfficeVisual Studio.Net: Tools to create servicesSmarTags: IntelliSense for Web content"Natural" interface: Improved UITooling for web, integrationMicrosoft will provide "building blocks" that comprise a programming infrastructure that supports its new .Net platform, company officials said last week while outlining its developer tools strategy.
The company this week will also announce a new programming language dubbed C#.
"C# is a language derived from C and C++ that provides a way for developers to build applications and components for the .Net platform," said Tony Goodhew, Microsoft's Visual C++ product manager.
Microsoft's Goodhew stresses that this in not a reaction to Java.
"The problem that Java solved is that you can write the code once and run it anywhere," he says. "The problem customers wanted solved is how to get all their different applications to work together."
Goodhew says that Microsoft is using XML in both C# and the overall .Net platform to enable disparate applications to exchange data.
C# will be included in the next version of Visual Studio, which will be called Visual Studio.Net. A prerelease version of the product will be given to developers next month at Microsoft's Professional Developer's Conference in Orlando, Florida.
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.
XML is the enabling technology in the Universal Canvas feature of .Net, which enables users to transfer data between applications without leaving the browser. But using XML will not make .Net a truly open platform.
"It's difficult to translate the full richness to other platforms," said John Frederickson, a product manager at Microsoft. "And it's our job to make sure that it runs better on Windows."
Paul Maritz, the group vice president of the platforms strategy and developer group, said Microsoft will aggressively target developers.