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Friday, 25 January, 2002, 12:11 GMT
Microsoft looks beyond the desktop
mouse and keboard, Eyewire
Microsoft wants to go much further than just the desktop
By BBC News Online's technology correspondent Mark Ward

The technologies behind Microsoft's much mentioned .Net initiative are slowly being revealed as is the scale of the software giant's ambition for it.

Microsoft is due to launch a key toolkit for .Net in February that it hopes will start to extend the company's reach far beyond its traditional stronghold of desktop computers.

But as .Net becomes more concrete, it will throw Microsoft into fierce competition with some of its bitterest rivals, as well as pit it against an array of new opponents.

Some experts believe that Microsoft is taking a huge risk with .Net, because of the initiative's complexity and the technologies it is backing to make it work.

Cutting code

Although the .Net initiative was officially unveiled in June 2000, key parts of it are only now appearing. The big idea behind .Net is to make all software network-aware.

"At the moment applications are built very much in a tightly coupled, monolithic fashion that isn't very flexible," Mark Greatorex, director of Microsoft's .Net developer group, told BBC News Online.

It's a fairly big gamble for Microsoft

Charles Homs, Forrester Research
By contrast, programs built with .Net, and rival initiatives such as Java Enterprise Edition (J2EE), will happily swap data across networks from the moment they are created.

Many industry commentators believe that only when such net-savvy programs make it easy for companies and consumers to get at, and use, online data will e-commerce really boom.

The grand vision will mean companies can translate their real world business into web services just by picking and putting together the relevant network-aware components.

Passport control

The key technology standard for these web-services is known as the Extensible Markup Language (XML), which preserves the structure of data, such as sales figures in a spreadsheet, as it travels across networks.

Already initiatives like the Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration (UDDI) are helping companies find who is ready to do business electronically.

Microsoft is using its dominance in desktop operating systems to ensure anyone building a web service puts a Microsoft front-end on it.

Larry Ellison, AP
Larry Ellison, Oracle boss and Microsoft rival
It is close to achieving this goal already with This gives people a single, convenient way to identify themselves to websites. Newer Microsoft products force people to open a Passport account to unlock the software's full range of services.

But Microsoft's ambitions are much grander than just controlling the user-facing end of web transactions.

With the launch of the Visual Studio .Net programming toolkit next month Microsoft hopes to start convincing businesses to use its software to build whole web services.

"It's a fairly big gamble for Microsoft," said Charles Homs, senior analyst at Forrester Research.

Dominate and control

The toolkit is likely to prove popular with the millions of programmers familiar with Microsoft's set of Visual software development products.

Mr Homs said Microsoft could still have a hard job to convince companies to remodel their businesses using the product.

"Microsoft's core competency is in desktop operating systems and consumer products like Office," said Mr Homs. "With .Net they have to get into the enterprise arena and that is where companies like Oracle dominate."

Mr Homs said Microsoft's lack of experience in selling and installing large-scale and complex programs for businesses could seriously harm its chances of success.

Also, Oracle is one of Microsoft's bitterest rivals and is allying itself with many of the organisations creating sets of tools that directly rival .Net.

But perhaps one of the biggest hurdles Microsoft has to overcome is of its own making.

Many viruses have exploited Windows weaknesses
If companies are doing business using web services that draw on information deep inside those organisations' core databases, they have to be sure that transactions cannot be compromised by criminals, malicious hackers or vandals.

But few people in the computer industry look to Microsoft to produce software that is secure and trustworthy. Many virus writers prey on weaknesses in Microsoft software to ensure their malicious programs spread far and wide.

"Trust is not something you get given; you have to earn it," said Mr Greatorex. "We have a responsibility to ourselves and the industry to ensure that we do everything in our power to get that confidence."

If it does not, Microsoft could lose everything it is gambling on .Net.

See also:

09 Nov 01 | Sci/Tech
Rivals queue up to take on Microsoft
13 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
Gates hands down his tablet
22 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Windows embraces the web
24 Oct 01 | Sci/Tech
Microsoft's XP extends reach
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