If it wants to keep pace, Microsoft must sprint

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The Independent Online

As the dust settles on Microsoft's recent announcement of its .Net strategy, analysts and users alike are still left wondering what great mysteries Microsoft's next generation Windows platform will solve.

As the dust settles on Microsoft's recent announcement of its .Net strategy, analysts and users alike are still left wondering what great mysteries Microsoft's next generation Windows platform will solve.

Microsoft seems to believe it is doing the world a favour by assuring its customers that its vision will put them in control of the information they need and improve their user experience.

But do we really care when even Microsoft admits it won't have all the pieces in place for at least 24 months?

The Washington state colossus is famous for announcing its products and then letting them slip for several months or even years. But in this case there appears to be an element of power politics at play. Analysts have said that Microsoft is gambling the company on its "new" strategy of making the network the computer, an idea which it spurned a few years ago. It appears that the software giant is eager to deflect Department of Justice accusations by proclaiming .Net an open, standard platform.

The company believes that this change in direction will reinforce its position as a company that does understand the internet and is placing the emphasis on the total system rather than just on the desktop.

Previously known as Next Generation Windows Services, the strategy .Net will give businesses, consumers and developers a unique, personalised view of the world. It will harness the use of new, smart devices, such as interactive television and WAP phones, as well as support integration of different systems. To achieve this open platform, Microsoft has put its weight behind eXtensible markup language (XML), a universal standard that is gaining a lot of favour in the IT community.

XML will enable users to access an operating system through a browser and will have a single user interface that can be personalised by the individual user. It is uncertain whether or not the favoured language of software developers, Java, which was written by Microsoft's rival, Sun Microsystems, will be supported.

Neil Ward-Dutton, a principal analyst at the research group Ovum, says Microsoft has many hurdles to jump before it achieves success. "It has not yet convinced the user community that it will be a scaleable, reliable platform and it must convince developers to get on board. Waiting two years for a product to come to fruition is irrelevant to users, but it now needs to get developers working on .Net before the competitors muscle in."

In the meantime, rivals are banging on the door. With its XML-based, e-speak programme, which was part of an e-services initiative launched in May last year, Hewlett-Packard is already offering the product that Microsoft boasts about - both companies are offering similar services, such as access to the back-office while employees are on the move. The difference is that HP's services are out now and Windows.Net will not be available until 2001. The timing of Office.net's emergence is anyone's guess.

Developers have yet to fully embrace .Net, and with developer tool Visual Studio 7 only just out, Microsoft has a long way to go before it catches up with HP - not to mention Sun, IBM and Oracle, other competitors keen to grab the glory for themselves.

But the marketing initiative is still in Microsoft's favour; who has heard of e-speak?

With all this excitement anyone could be forgiven for losing touch with the anti-trust trial which has kept the world enthralled for months. If needled, Microsoft still shows itself keen to dispel any nasty rumours that it might be split up and doesn't even entertain the thought that Judge Jackson could finally get his way. A Microsoft spokesperson said the company felt optimistic that the appeal, lodged last week, would rule in its favour because the company is so pro-customer and in touch with its customers' requirements, that a split would be detrimental.

* This column is provided by TBC Research, a publishing, events and research company. Contact www.tbcresearch.com