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What Microsoft's .NET Initiative Means to the ASP Industry

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Initially seen as a strategic vision for Microsoft as it reinvents itself to a more Internet-centric value message, the .NET initiative is starting to get traction by simplifying and focusing the message it contains.
Louis Columbus is the author of more than 40 articles and a dozen books on the Internet, e-commerce, and computing topics. His latest book is Realizing e-Business with Application Service Providers (SAMS, 2000, ISBN 0-67232-053-3).

With its beginnings in the latter months of 1999 and the first announcements in the summer of 2000, Microsoft has been steadily building the story behind its .NET initiative. What's significant about this announcement is the focus that the software maker has on a comprehensive infrastructure for the future of computing with the Internet as the foundation. Can Microsoft pull this off? That is the question of the year in 2001 to date.

With companies as diverse as Click Commerce and Commerce One announcing their intentions to support this initiative, it's becoming clear that Microsoft is getting traction where it counts most, on both the sell-side and buy-side of e-commerce application vendors who today rely on the Microsoft platform as part of their deliver approach for the ASP model.

With its introduction in the summer of 2000, Microsoft took its broad-reaching announcement, rolling together Microsoft's Next-Generation Windows Services (NGWS) with new initiatives slated to produce content services, subscription-based application services, and updated development tools. The announcement initially created more confusion than cooperation. If there are so many business models enabled with the tools available in .NET, what's the point of such a diverse platform? The initial messaging from Microsoft did not include the definition of how the various components could be used to create a unified single strategy. In short, confusion and the thought that this entire initiative was too big for many ASPs to take on without partnerships muted the initial launch.

Repositioning .NET

Microsoft is currently positioning .NET as the enabler for next-generation Internet applications, which offer the same levels of functionality that existing customers get using one of the myriad of Microsoft Windows-centric applications. In speaking with Microsoft's senior executives and hearing them at conferences, they are clearly positioning .NET as the "we're-betting-the-ranch" level of commitment to this latest initiative.

The majority of confusion over .NET has centered on how many diverse products and services are included in it, and the scope that was initially presented by Microsoft during its initial launch. Adding to the confusion were the skirmishes Microsoft had with other vendors over the XML specifications, critical to the success of the entire initiative. Compounding the issue over XML is the fact that even people at Microsoft describe the initiative differently. At the essence of the confusion is the fact that .NET isn't a product strategy, but a business one Microsoft is propagating.

A better way to conceptualize the impact of the .NET initiative is to contemplate how .NET will change Microsoft's products. One should think of it as creating a next-generation COM architecture—it could almost be called COM++ or COM# (read: "COM Sharp"). Given the proprietary nature of COM and the failure to get decent COM support aboard non-Microsoft platforms, however, the company is wise to use a dissimilar moniker for something that it hopes will be used as a multiplatform technology.

Another important point to note is that Microsoft clearly realizes that it must do something to insert its products into Web-based applications. Web-based applications today are based on Web browsers as the graphical user interface, plus either Javascript or Java applets as the client side of distributed applications and Web server software, Web-caching software, relational database software, and some sort of scripting language to tie it all together. (Perl or Python often serve as the scripting language.) None of these functions requires Microsoft operating systems, development tools, deployment environments, middleware, or serverware.

Ultimately, Microsoft will be in the position of having to focus its efforts on the platform approach to marketing .NET. That's the only card left to play in positioning .NET, given the initial confusion over the launch.

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