In a January briefing at Microsoft's Redmond campus, the software giant's representatives discussed the company's then-recent decision to drop the .NET name from most of its products and use a new .NET Connected Logo program to identify those applications and servers that offer .NET-compatible services. At the time, various colleagues and I theorized that Microsoft would recast the .NET Enterprise Servers product line as the Microsoft Enterprise Servers or something similar. However, last week Microsoft revealed that it plans to rename the product family as Windows Server System, which makes sense when compared to the recent renaming of the Microsoft Office family as the Microsoft Office System.

Senior Vice President of the Microsoft Server Platform Division Paul Flessner recently pointed to two reasons for the enterprise server family name change. "First, we're sending a clear signal to our customers and industry partners that we've heard their feedback--that IT has become increasingly complex and costly and less able to deliver business value. With Windows Server System, we're helping them understand the value that our comprehensive, integrated, and interoperable server infrastructure delivers today, as well as making a long-term commitment to reduce IT complexity and costs," Flessner said. "Second, by aligning the new brand with the server platform, we're clarifying that our long-term server business and technology strategy starts with Windows Server at the foundation. With this new brand, we're emphasizing to our customers and industry partners the business value of a top-to-bottom integrated server infrastructure. We want our customers and partners to know that we're working hard to ensure they're getting the best return on their investments with Windows Server System."

The long-term goals are what interest me most. Currently, the various products that compose Windows Server System are many and varied. To help identify them, Microsoft breaks them down in various subgroups, including e-business (BizTalk Server, Commerce Server, Content Management Server--CMS--and Host Integration Server--HIS); data management and analysis (SQL Server); messaging and collaboration (Exchange Server, SharePoint Portal Server, Project Server, and Real-Time Communications—RTC--Server); security (Internet Security and Acceleration Server--ISA--Server); and management (Systems Management Server--SMS--Microsoft Operations Manager--MOM--and Application Center). But as I've discussed before in Windows & .NET Magazine UPDATE, Microsoft will change or consolidate many of these products in the coming months. For example, Microsoft is in the beginning stages of a sweeping management server consolidation that ultimately leaves the fates of separate SMS, MOM, and Application Center products unclear.

Looking at this long list of products, two thoughts emerge. First, Microsoft will need to do its best-ever integration work to make these products work well together, and this integration needs to include other products, such as those in the Microsoft Office System. Second, the company needs to simplify licensing so that rolling out groups of these servers isn't prohibitively expensive. One of the biggest problems with Microsoft's existing server line is that after enterprises determine which products they need and how many Client Access Licenses (CALs) and processor licenses to purchase, many enterprises discover that the expense is too great and begin scaling back. By consolidating and simplifying some of these products, Microsoft could make mixing and maximizing these products easier and perhaps pay for the resulting technology.

Although moving away from .NET-centric branding is probably wise, the change will raise questions with some customers, especially those who have invested heavily in .NET technologies. Microsoft is careful to point out that .NET is a core part of the common architecture for Windows Server System, which presumably means it's a core part of Windows Server 2003. But .NET isn't included in any of the 64-bit versions of Windows 2003, leading some people to wonder how Microsoft can release those products in what is, in some ways, an unfinished state. Last week, I raised these concerns and the reader response was somewhat alarming: Many wanted to know whether Microsoft was abandoning .NET.

I don't think that's what's happening. Instead, Microsoft seems to be backing away from its .NET marketing strategy, in which the company foisted .NET as the answer to its (and, presumably, its customers') problems. After 3 or more years of barely measurable progress, .NET seems to have stalled. But the underlying technology--standards-based XML Web services that can cross application and OS boundaries--will likely stand at the heart of all Windows releases for the foreseeable future. But although .NET was once seen as the future of Microsoft, perhaps even a successor to Windows, the company no longer regards .NET as one of the ingredients that all the company's products will contain when everything shakes out. So Windows will contain .NET, although the reverse is, of course, not true.

Frankly, Microsoft should have taken this approach from the beginning; if it had, we wouldn't have seen the confusing marketing messages from Redmond, not to mention the several naming changes that Windows 2003 underwent during its development. This week, when the company launches Windows 2003 in San Francisco, it can highlight the product appropriately as a full-featured server product that scales from the lightest blade servers up to some of the largest, most scalable 64-bit behemoths in the world. Casting such a product as just part of a wider Web services strategy is an injustice to the many non-.NET features this server contains.

The Windows 2003 launch brings a sense of hope because it's the company's strongest server release to date, but also a sense of dread. Let's face it: The world's most creative intruders are waiting for the chance to hammer on Windows 2003 and expose any weaknesses. How Microsoft will respond to these problems and the reception that Windows 2003 receives in the real world will determine the success of the product. But if Windows 2003 fails early and often, then what? What's the next big marketing message?