A Glimpse of Microsoft's .NET Vision

First it was Windows on every computer, then Internet Explorer on every deskotp. Now Microsoft looks to continue its dominance with .NET, its platform for Web services. But what exactly is it, and what can it do for you?
If the future of computing really is a world where virtually every device has a connection to a global network, it stands to reason that Microsoft would want to assume the same dominant position its held for a decade in the world of desktop computing. Maker of the operating system that powers the vast majority of computers, Microsoft collects revenue on every PC sale.

What if that revenue stream was expanded to include other devices that connect to the Internet, using some form of Microsoft operating system to make it happen? What if that was also expanded to include a fee on a major portion of the business transactions that happen over the Internet? Now there are revenue streams a corporate behemoth could respect.

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's ... .NET
To understand what .NET is, you have to step back a take a look at where Microsoft wants to be in the connected universe. To achieve the same position it has with Windows in its different forms requires it to provide products and services that facilitate online business transactions. The strategy is essentially the same as in the first days of Windows: announce a platform, deliver applications with it, then deliver the tools needed by other independent software vendors to build and deliver efficiently their own applications.

In its own words, .NET is "Microsoft's platform for XML Web services." The key questions: what makes up this platform, and what is a Web service? One key piece of the platform is the .NET framework. Introduced at last year's Microsoft developer conference (along with a host of supporting tools), the .NET framework is a common foundation that supports a multitude of interoperable programming languages.

Another key piece of the .NET platform is its lineup of .NET enterprise servers (products such as Microsoft SQL Server 2000, BizTalk Server 2000, Commerce Server 2000, Application Center 2000, Host Integration Server 2000, Internet Security and Acceleration Server 2000, and Exchange 2000 Server). All of these products will work together and function as building blocks, allowing other software sellers to build their solutions entirely on Microsoft products.

XML Marks the Spot
Extensible Markup Language (XML) has become the de facto standard to describe and exchange data across the Internet. Most of the major database vendors, including IBM, Oracle, and Microsoft, have incorporated XML features in their products.

Microsoft considers its database product, SQL Server 2000, a key part of the .NET platform, and it has made XML a natively supported feature of the product. BizTalk Server 2000 also uses XML as its primary language for communication.

A Visual Vision
One of the smartest things Microsoft did in the early days of Windows was to deliver a set of developer tools that attracted other software vendors to create new products. Visual Basic was one of the earliest rapid application development tools delivered specifically for developing Windows-based applications; it has grown to be one of the most widely used programming languages in corporate America. Microsoft knew a good thing when it saw it and decided to make Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). This subset of the full-blown Visual Basic product is the standard language for extending its popular Office line of productivity tools.

Microsoft has not forgotten where the developer community has taken it and has demonstrated that sensitivity in the latest version of its developer tools, named Visual Studio (VS) .NET.

If you expect a platform to gain wide acceptance, youd better provide the tools necessary for widespread developer support. Microsoft has a diverse and loyal following among developers (as evidenced by attendance at its developer conferences).With this latest version of tools, Microsoft continues to deliver enhancements and features that make the task of delivering new applications easier. The new focus with VS .NET aims to use Web services to build applications that use the Internet to the fullest extent.

Inside Web Services
Web services are, to some extent, analogous with operating system services as we know them today. When an application programmer sets out to create a Windows-based program, it's not necessary to write a lot of code to read a file from disk, for example. The needed functions are provided by the operating system and accessed through a few simple lines of code.

Web services are unique components accessed through a Web site that deliver a specific type of functionality. An example would be a shipping company that could offer programmatic access to specific services like scheduling a package for shipment, tracking that package, and processing billing information from a Web site. A second company could then build an application to ship merchandise and complete the transaction by integrating the shipping company's Web services right into its application.

"We see the market for Web services as one where companies provide not only specialized components but also act as integrators to piece together with their own offerings a whole host of broad-based solutions," said Dwight Krossa, Microsofts director of emerging technologies for Windows server product management.

Visual Studio for Applications (VSA) is designed to bring the same level of customization to Web-based apps that VBA brought to desktop productivity apps. A number of large vendors, including Great Plains Software (now a subsidiary of Microsoft), have announced support for VSA across its product line.

"VSA provides a competitive advantage and delivers customization that will allow our customers to fully tailor their solutions," said Vern Strong, senior vice president of emerging platform services at Great Plains.

UpShot is an ASP focusing on sales force automation. The company launched in early 1997 using an almost exclusively Microsoft technology base. Don Griffin, vice president of engineering at UpShot, said, "We saw our choice of Microsoft products as our lowest barrier to entry. Our focus was to bring a particular service offering to market in the shortest amount of time, and standardizing on Microsoft made that possible.

UpShot sees .NET as a strategic opportunity to expose its capabilities as a set of Web services with which other companies can integrate.

Not every current Microsoft customer started out that way. Workforce management service provider eLabor is a recent convert. "We started out as a Java shop back in the '96 to '98 timeframe. In 1999, we made a decision to shift our development efforts over to the Microsoft camp and associated products like SQL Server, Internet Information Server, and Windows," Mike Toma, the companys chief technical officer, said. The next version of its product will use the latest technologies like XML, SOAP and UDDI to handle application integration.

Having It All
Microsoft's vision of the future is an Internet enabled by its products and services. If you buy into its vision, you pretty much have to adopt the whole thing. Many of the .NET pieces are interrelated and depend on another Microsoft product to function properly. Others will work by themselves, but are "optimized" to work in a Microsoft environment. If companies want to use .NET, theyll have to decide whether or not to put all their eggs in the Microsoft basket.






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