On Thursday, June 22, 2000, executives from Microsoft Corporation finally unveiled the company's plans for the future, which revolve around a set of technologies called Microsoft .NET ("Microsoft Dot Net"). And while news of this magnitude tends to make even the mainstream press, one thing was probably lost on most people that heard about the new strategy. Microsoft .NET represents a complete and utter change in the way that Microsoft does business, and it will gradually transform the company from one that supplies shrink-wrapped software to one that supplies subscription-based services to its customers over the Internet.

Because of its complexity, Microsoft .NET is a confusing concept that is lost on most people. It's "a next-generation programming model that lets people take advantage of the wonders of XML (eXtensible Markup Language) and provides the next-generation user experience," says Microsoft president Steve Ballmer. "It involves the user interface [now dubbed the user experience], new back-end services, and gives the user control over a variety of Web sites. What are the bits? Its set of middleware and end-user interfaces that go into devices, servers and the Internet cloud."

Dot NET behind the scenes
We might break down Microsoft Dot NET into the following components:

  • Next generation user experience - A new user interface for Windows and the company's other products that will facilitate easier interaction with Web-based services. Consider the Windows 95 "Explorer", an object-based user interface that was based on Microsoft's "Cairo" technology. Explorer was designed to make it easier for people to work in a document-centric world so that the previous focus--on applications--would be pushed to the back. In Dot NET, users will work more seamlessly with the Internet so that the boundaries between the local system and the "Internet cloud" are even less defined. The Dot NET user experience is a logical extension of Explorer, and it is based on the XML Web technology, enabling easier customization and integration with the Internet.

    The first generation user experience is already available: MSN 6, the company's new Internet client, features an early version of the Dot NET user experience if you want to get used to the new interface now.

  • Basic Dot NET components - Email, calendaring, instant messaging, Web site publishing, document authoring, and similar capabilities will be built into the basic Dot NET platform, which will initially run on Windows.NET 1.0 (code-named "Whistler"), the next version of Windows 2000. In the future, other devices such as cell phones and PDAs will be able to use Dot NET components as well.

  • Dot NET subscription services - Basic services, such as personal information management will be offered for free.

  • Dot NET premium subscription services - Microsoft will start offering its software as services over the Internet and users will subscribe to these services in the same way that we now subscribe to cable TV and magazines. For example, you could subscribe to Office.NET (the version of Office that will follow Office 10, due later this year) and get the full range of productivity services that Office.NET supplies.
Dot NET road map
For this strategy to come together, a number of things need to happen. First of all, Microsoft needs to partner with third parties that can supply the infrastructure for a subscription-based service. The company already has good relationships with Conxion and other application hosting services that would be up to the task, and we can assume that these companies will be vying for Microsoft's business. Microsoft's products will need to be upgraded first, and then totally overhauled, to become compatible with Dot NET services. At a very low level, this means that Microsoft's products will have to be XML-enabled, and this is something that they are working on right now. All of the company's products that ship in 2000 and beyond will be XML-enabled to varying degrees, from server products such as SQL Server 2000 and Exchange Server 2000 to client applications like Internet Explorer and Microsoft Outlook. In some cases, this will require two generations of upgrades. For example, Microsoft will begin beta testing Office 10 this summer, but Office 10 isn't the first version of Office.NET. Instead, Office 10 will offer a few Dot Net services, such as Smart Links, while the company prepares a future release that will completely exist in the Dot NET world. In some cases--such as Windows--the company will probably have to create versions of the product that are Dot NET enabled and versions that are not. This is because it will take at least two years (though I'd guess four) for the Dot NET strategy to unfold.

As this is written in mid-2000, Microsoft's Dot NET roadmap is already starting to unfold. The first Dot NET technology release is MSN 6, which will feature the new user experience. An alpha version of Visual Studio 7, which will be given to developers in mid-July 2000, will usher in the first Dot NET technologies for programmers, so that these people can begin working on applications that will run as Web services. And Office 10 and Whistler will also enter beta this month. Office 10, as previously mentioned, isn't a Dot NET technology per se, but Whistler is. Whistler represents the 1.0 version of Windows.NET, a new kind of Windows that will offer an infrastructure and base for Dot NET services. A future version of Windows (such as Windows.NET 2.0, code-named "Blackcomb") will complete the Dot NET picture when it is released in 2-3 years.

Conclusion
If you think about Microsoft .NET as "software as a service," then you've got the right idea. In many cases, this software will actually be a subscription service, of course, which means that you will have to pay some ongoing fee for its use. While this pay model isn't yet common in the software industry, it's certainly common enough elsewhere. And it's likely that the world will embrace software subscriptions once the original confusion wears off. Microsoft's biggest problem is going to be educating users about the change, to be honest, as the technology is already in place to make this happen. A pervasive use of XML now will ensure that the foundation for Microsoft .NET is in place by the time Whistler ships next year.