Opinion: Microsoft tinkers with its .Net branding

Remember Y2K? Remember how all the computers in the world stopped working at midnight? Remember the Congressional congressional hearings, the martial law, the show trials? It didn't happen. Remember .Net? Remember how it threatened the very survival of Windows? Remember HailSHailStorm and its Passport lock-in? Remember the antitrust trials, the breakup, the hijacking of XML? It didn't happen. Journalism is history on the fly. Every day, when we pick up the newspaper, we arrive fresh and innocent, anticipating a new series of facts to advance the story as we last left it.

Embedded in each article are three things - a nugget of truth, an educated guess, and supporting opinion. Going back to Y2K, there was the simple truth that the clocks would roll over at midnight, and older computers would not be sure whether '00' in the year field meant 1900 or 2000.

The educated guess: If you were driving your car at that moment, you would either continue barreling down the road in the 21st century or possibly be in need of a horse at the beginning of the 20th. Supporting opinion was all over the map, but the one consensus was that we just didn't know what was going to happen. The net result: a crisis of confidence no less real because of the actual outcome.

.Net's nugget of truth was the reality of the dot in .Net. As Microsoft Corp.'s CEO Steve Ballmer said at the Forum 2000 rollout in June 2000,'The Microsoft .Net platform is the infrastructure and tools to build and operate a new generation of services.' He also said,'This is a long process, much like the transition from MS-DOS to Windows.'

The educated guess: If you were a Windows shop barreling down the road, you might need to pull over and retool for the Internet Age. And the supporting opinion came from the unlikeliest of sources - the Java community, which tripped all over itself in the rush to clone the argument. Only Sun Microsystems Inc. held out for a while, scoffing at SOAP and trivializing Microsoft as a consumer platform.

Time passed. The newspapers piled up in the driveway with headlines like:'HailStorm hits enterprise,''Liberty Alliance Launched,''.Net Submitted To ECMA,''Mono: Open Source .Net,''HailStorm Bites Dust,''Federated Cloud Gathers,' and on and on. Simultaneously, Redmond 's legal trials worked their way through judicial news conferences, appeals, judgments, and settlements, civil and uncivil.

It's a kind of virtual pingpong game: .Net, J2EE, Passport, Liberty, Web services, IBM Global services, .Net CLR, JVM (Java virtual machine). And as the states settled and Sun won one in civil court, the motivation to separate .Net from Windows vanished. With breakup off the table and a Republican majority in all three branches, the pressure was lifting. Now it's January 2003, and Google News reports Microsoft has changed the name of the forthcoming (April 23) Windows .Net Server 2003 one mo' time. A .Net-ectomy has produced the streamlined Windows Server 2003. Published reports quote a memo to partners indicating that the reason for the change'is to simplify the product's naming and reconcile it with our branding strategy for .Net.'

Hello. Reconcile? At first glance, this looks like a classic Microsoft strategy snafu. From Day One, the'branding strategy' has been to herald .Net as a shift comparable to DOS-to-Windows.'Transition' is a bloodless word for those who remember the'evolution' to Windows. Remember WordPerfect? Lotus 1-2-3? Sidekick? Guess wrong, and show's over.

At second glance, there may be less to the story under the hood. With Release Candidate 1 on the same schedule as announced prior to the name change, it's unlikely that there's any change in the underlying bits. Besides, Microsoft's preoccupation with its Trustworthy Computing Initiative has been more about turning off features than removing them. Failing any meaningful upheaval at the code level, we are left to ponder the political consequences of the move. Competitors will likely see this as an opening for counterattacks. Sun is readying a Feb. 10 Scott McNealy announcement of a broad next-generation platform strategy that leaves Microsoft floating at the irrelevant edges of the network. Oracle will continue its'Web services, I told you so' Debunking Tour 2003.

So what is the branding strategy for .Net? The partner memo contains some hints, particularly a Microsoft .Net Connected logo, which will adorn the server package. The creation of a logo implies its use on the rest of the .Net server line, an ironic footnote to Microsoft's zealous .Net evangelism in its early days.

But what happens to Visual Studio.Net? The developer community never bought the Windows DNA branding to begin with, and the Visual Basic troops mutinied against some of the .Net syntax enhancements. Rolling back that name change might seem more like a rejection or retrenchment than the server's code, where .Net's penetration is still limited.

The real worry is not that .Net is going away, but that a new wave of transformation is on the way. If .Net is about the network - the connections between things - does this rebranding foreshadow a next-generation wave of innovation to confront Sun's N1 and IBM's On Demand strategies? Or how about a next-generation wave of intelligent machine-aided software development?

Remember the Web? Remember how all the machines stopped talking to people and started talking only to each other? Remember digital disobedience, the identity worms, the Patent Wars? It didn't happen.