I come from a programming background, and I'm very interested in Microsoft's next version of Visual Studio (VS), a suite of software and Web development tools for Windows 2000 (Win2K) and Windows NT. In the past, VS releases arrived about once a year, but with VS 6.0 languishing on the shelves since September 1998, many people have been wondering what the company's plans are. A few weeks ago, Microsoft President and CEO Steve Ballmer presented a keynote address at the VBITS 2000 show in San Francisco, in which he discussed the next versions of Visual Basic (VB) and Visual C++, the cornerstone products in VS. His talk revealed more about Microsoft's plans for the future than anything else the company has said recently.

The most compelling part of Ballmer’s address was an early peek at Microsoft's Next Generation Windows Services (NGWS), a software initiative that will let Windows users access a variety of services over the Web. From a software development perspective, NGWS will require a major reworking of the way that people use software, but Ballmer points out that this transition is already occurring. Soon, we’ll forget we ever had to drive to a store to buy a shrink-wrapped software product. With NGWS (a name Ballmer concedes is horrible—it could change before release), we'll be able to subscribe to code snippets over the Internet. These bits of code can provide functionality, such as a spell checker for a word processor, or services, such as a single, secure location for storing credit card and banking information that will make online purchases simpler and consistent across e-commerce sites.

To get to that point, however, Microsoft must evolve the Windows platform significantly. The first step in this evolution, of course, is Win2K, which Ballmer refers to as the foundation for this "Internet user experience." Win2K brings us Windows Distributed interNet Applications (DNA) 2000, which is simply a formal name for the latest version of the three-tier programming model that first appeared in NT 4.0. Today, this model includes client programs (Web or Win32 applications), a middle tier comprised of COM+ components, and a database backend (preferably SQL Server). NGWS will veer off the current Windows DNA path by relying exclusively on XML as the data communications standard. XML, which users often assume is a replacement for or an upgrade to HTML, the language of the Web, is simply a standardized way to describe data. In the NGWS model, each piece of the puzzle—client, middleware, and data—will communicate with every other piece using XML. Developers won't need to learn to hand-code XML, as they do now. The tools in Microsoft's next version of VS will generate the XML code for them.

XML is a cross-platform communication standard, which has positive side effects for NGWS. For example, developers might code an entire e-commerce Web site in the next version of VB, and because each piece of this site speaks XML, developers can build clients that run in Linux, Solaris, or the Mac OS. As long as you have a standard way to communicate, you can use any OS or application that recognizes the standard.

Microsoft's first look at the world of NGWS is already here; it's called Passport. With Passport, users can create a free eWallet that provides one sign-in for participating e-commerce sites and a wallet service that makes online purchasing easier. Passport is a proof of concept, eliminating the need to set up accounts at each site you visit and enter credit card account information each time you buy something. Just as the real world has standardized around the cash and credit purchasing system, it's only a matter of time before the online world does the same, using an eWallet-like technology. And Passport is the first significant step in this direction.

With technologies such as Passport and the upcoming arrival of NGWS, we're standing on the threshold of a brave new world. I won't go into the programmatic details of the next version of VS, but if you're a developer, check out Microsoft's VS Web site for more information.