Nobody really saw the Internet coming, but Microsoft was later than most to acknowledge the shift in the focus of computing-at least, publicly. In fact, it spent the Web's early years trying to fend off efforts by competitors like Oracle chairman Larry Ellison and Sun chairman Scott McNealy to make "the network the computer."
Now, the plan is to mimic the success of its popular desktop software by creating a new generation of products to be delivered solely over the Web, and to extend that functionality to new Web-enabled devices like handheld computers, PDAs, television sets and maybe a kitchen appliance or two-being careful not to interrupt revenue streams for desktop software.
Microsoft plans to follow up Windows Millennium with Windows.NET, and the next revision of its Microsoft Office desktop suite with Office.NET early next year. Before then, Redmond will roll out half-a-dozen special-purpose Windows 2000 servers for e-commerce, transaction processing, database maintenance, what have you.
For its Visual Basic developers, Microsoft has begun previewing its new full-featured Web development environment, Visual Studio.NET. Apparently, it won't include the Java tools Microsoft built under license from Sun, but rather Microsoft's new C# (pronounced "C sharp") programming language-a Java antidote.
The ultimate goal is to tie all computing devices to .NET, allowing .NET users to access their e-mail, calendar and important files regardless of what device they're using. That's a far taller order than tying various desktop computing applications together under Windows. The operating system, interface, data processing, programming and ergonomic differences between computers of all sizes and would-be Internet devices like phones, PDAs, home appliances and even wristwatches are too numerous to detail here. Suffice to say, it all requires many lines of programming glue, admits Microsoft.NET development group manager Barry Goffe.
The most important element, he says, will be the reprogramming of the Web to allow highly integrated Web services using the new Extensible Markup Language (XML) and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) standards. These are the stand-ards that Microsoft needs the world to adopt-in addition, of course, it needs non-Windows competitors to buy into whatever mezzanine code is needed between their OSes and XML.
Microsoft's first multiyear pro-gramming challenge is to Web-enable its own desktop arsenal and make all of Office. NET accessible in ways only poorly implemented in Exchange e-mail servers today, says Williams. Then, individuals or workgroups will have the option to rent (as well as buy) software from Microsoft and/or ASPs, accessing "programs" in real time through their Web browsers. Microsoft will rent software and other services to consumers through its MSN Web sites and to small businesses through its bCentral.com.
While pricing details are far from finalized, businesses will probably pay a per-user monthly fee for each service used, says Goffe. ASPs will provide the first line of support, but you will be able to get escalated to Microsoft support if necessary, adds Satya Nadella, vice president of Microsoft bCentral.com.
Instead of the historic trend to amass ever-more functionality into a large software bundle like Microsoft Office or Exchange, you'll be able to rent only the services you need, says Goffe. For example, you might buy a copy of Microsoft Office for your desktop PC, but rent only the phone book and calendar functions of Office.NET from an ASP for your PDA.