Microsoft's .Net plans hazy

Some users are hoping to get answers at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference (PDC), which starts July 11 in the US.

.Net is described by Microsoft as a platform for next-generation internet applications. It will include new development tools, such as Visual Studio.Net; a new user interface, called the .Net User Experience; and Microsoft-hosted "building-block services," including Identity and Personalisation, all to be delivered over the next two or more years.

Industry analysts this week said Microsoft must prove that developing applications using .Net will be faster and easier than other approaches such as Enterprise JavaBeans. That will in large part depend on the tools Microsoft is expected to demonstrate to developers at PDC: Visual Studio 7, which is due next year, and the future Visual Studio.Net follow-up.

Also at issue is the fact that Microsoft has given no indication of how it will price its hosted building-block services. "If a developer can get the work done faster by using a .Net service, that's a great advantage for him," said Sam Patterson, CEO of ComponentSource, an online marketplace for software components. "[But] corporations need to know what this will cost them."

Others worry about the security implications of depending on Microsoft-hosted services. But Gene McNair, electronic-business systems administrator at Schneider Automation in North Andover, Massachusetts, said he would consider using Microsoft's proposed identity service for his company's website aimed at partners and customers. "It's not really conceptually different from going to VeriSign for digital certificates," McNair said.

Another uncertainty is the fate of Microsoft technologies such as DCOM, which some say is largely superceded by Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), the Microsoft-driven proposed standard for program-to-program communication that is to be the "glue" between various .Net services.

Microsoft is "de-emphasising COM," said James Kobielus, an analyst at The Burton Group in Virginia. "Very few people are using DCOM for the internet." But Dwight Davis, an analyst at Boston-based Summit Strategies, said Microsoft is unlikely to abandon developers who have already chosen DCOM.

ComponentSource is experimenting with SOAP. "We're seeing no scalability or performance problems," Patterson said . But he added that Microsoft needs to explain when .Net will be ready for use in a production environment.

Also worrisome for some users is that, although hardware vendors such as Compaq and Dell were present at the .Net launch, few software developers or corporate users have so far stepped up to endorse the concept. "Microsoft would have done better to pull together a consortium before they announced this," McNair said.

In addition, some question Microsoft's commitment to open standards. "It will be real interesting to see at PDC whether they will open-source a runtime for .Net, to see how open they are going to be," said Evan Quinn, an analyst at Hurwitz Group in Boston. "I have a suspicion that Microsoft is going to try to out-open Sun."

But Deepak Amin, CEO of application service provider vJungle in Washington, said Microsoft also might reverse course. "I wouldn't bet my future on anyone's open approach in the future - not Microsoft, not anyone," Amin said.

Hovering over .Net's future is the fate of Microsoft itself. "Adoption may be a little slower because of the DOJ case," said Gartner analyst Dave Smith, referring to the breakup order won by the US Department of Justice in its antitrust suit against the company. That would split Microsoft into two companies, one for its operating systems and the rest for its various applications.

But Smith said he believes the .Net strategy may help a post-breakup applications company, if Microsoft's promised appeal in the antitrust case is rejected. "In a post-breakup scenario, [.Net] is likely to be the core of the applications company," said Smith, who added that he expects a Windows operating system company to "effectively atrophy."

Because of the many blanks in the .Net plan, "it will be four years before an enterprise would look at this as a viable platform for its enterprise computing needs," predicted William Hurley, an analyst at The Yankee Group.

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