This summer, Microsoft unveiled its plans for the next-generation Internet, dropping the tedious Next Generation Windows Services (NGWS) name for the friendlier Microsoft .NET. As expected, Microsoft announced that it's slowly moving from supplying shrink-wrapped software to supplying subscription-based services. The software-subscription model brings up unwelcome images of a Microsoft tollbooth on the Internet, but the company explained that it's simply changing with the times and remodeling itself in a manner consistent with the growing Internet tidal wave.

".NET is the next-generation programming model that lets people take advantage of the wonders of XML and provides the next-generation user experience," said Microsoft President and CEO Steve Ballmer. "It involves the user interface and new back-end services, and gives the user control over a variety of Web sites. \[The software is\] a set of middleware and end-user interfaces that go into devices, servers, and the Internet cloud."

"Microsoft is announcing that our efforts as a company are going to be focused on this next generation \[Internet\] platform," said Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates at Forum 2000 in June. "We call it .NET. That's a term \[that\] encompasses more than one thinks. It encompasses the idea of putting rich code onto \[an array of\] clients. It encompasses the idea of having services across the Internet that help every one of these clients. And then there's a new generation of servers that can work together providing those services that either can run inside of corporations, can run inside an ASP, or can be run by the software creators themselves in order to allow all the users to get at that service capability."

A mind-numbing series of Microsoft .NET technology announcements swept out of Redmond this summer. The majority of Microsoft's future product releases will be part of Microsoft .NET, which is both an infrastructure (i.e., platform) and a set of next-generation Web services. For Windows-based clients, the technology will include a new user-extensible, highly personalized, and easily customized .NET User Experience; .NET building block services, which will ship as a runtime environment for various Windows versions; and .NET device software, which will enable the use of smart Internet devices as well as traditional PCs. Future Microsoft .NET-compatible products include the next version of Windows 2000 (i.e., Windows.NET, previously code-named Whistler), the next version of MSN (i.e., MSN.NET), the next version of Visual Studio (VSā€”Visual Studio.NET, previously designated as VS 7.0), bCentral for .NET, a future version of Microsoft Office (i.e., Office .NET, which will run as collective Web services), and an as-yet-unnamed personal subscription service. Microsoft's business partners and third-party developers will also be able to create tools and services that leverage the Microsoft .NET platform.

The .NET strategy is going to take some time to implement, of course. Microsoft will phase in some of Microsoft .NET's more exciting aspects over the next 2 years, according to Gates. Windows .NET 1.0 won't feature a "100 percent implementation" of Windows.NET: Key elements, such as the full User Experience, won't be ready until the next major release of Windows .NET, code-named Blackcomb. "So this plan is not about something that is all finished here and now," Gates said. "This plan is about how we're focusing the R&D efforts of the company and doing something that literally is as profound as the initial graphics interface work that we did quite some time ago." Microsoft critics should have fun with that comment, which essentially relegates Microsoft .NET to vaporware until the product ships.

However, some early .NET technologies are already available. MSN 6, code-named Mars, uses an early version of the .NET User Experience, so users can begin to get used to the .NET look and feel. And Office 10, which is currently in beta, offers a tantalizing look at SmartTags, a core .NET technology. This feature automatically recognizes and categorizes typed words and phrases. For example, when a user working in Microsoft Word types the name of a person in the user's Microsoft Outlook address book, Word underlines the name. The user can click the name to display an appropriate menu; the menu might include an option to send that person an email message. When the user types the name of a company, an available action might let the user connect to that company's Web site. When .NET is fully realized, SmartTags will be pervasive, personalized, and more fully based on natural language processing. This year, Microsoft is releasing much of the initiative's infrastructure in a host of XML-enabled applications and servers, such as SQL Server 2000, Exchange 2000 Server, and BizTalk Server 2000. Also, the company promises that .NET technology will appear in Visual Studio.NET, due in early 2001.

"Microsoft .NET is a major shift for our company," said Ballmer. "This shift is a long process, much like the transition from MS-DOS to Windows. We'll continue to offer and support our existing platforms and applications, including versions of the Windows platform without .NET services, and in the long term, the majority of our products and services will evolve into subscription services, delivered over the Internet, that will give users greater control, transparent installation and backup, and unprecedented customer service. It will take a long time, but we're committed and patient enough to make it happen." Gates concurred. "You could say it's a bet-the-company thing," he said. "We are putting our resources behind .NET because we believe in it, and so our entire strategy is defined around this platform."