Microsoft President and CEO Steve Ballmer recently admitted that although Microsoft was working as quickly as it could to deliver a Windows version that fully supports the new Microsoft .NET technologies, the full .NET User Experience is still 1 to 2 years away. Ballmer said that the next version of Windows 2000, code-named Whistler, will feature only a subset of the .NET technologies. The follow-up to Whistler, code-named Blackcomb and due in 2002 or 2003 (according to Ballmer), will be the first complete .NET OS release and will include a new UI that the company refers to as the .NET User Experience.

"Windows doesn't go away; the PC doesn't go away. But we needed a platform to reflect the reality of the Internet," Ballmer said. "\[.NET\] is a big change for us, and it is a lot of work \[and\] a lot of effort." Microsoft's new strategy will see the company move from a maker of store-bought software to a supplier of Web-based services. To complete the transition, Microsoft will need to redesign Windows to support a .NET runtime engine as well as add pervasive OS hooks into various .NET technologies. Microsoft is using XML as the basis for .NET, which the company will slowly incorporate into all its application and server products.

In the meantime, the company's free-for-download MSN Explorer hints at the .NET User Experience, which will be similar to a Web browser but will be much easier to use. Microsoft is upgrading the Visual Studio (VS) development environment into a .NET-compatible version so that developers can start creating the application services that will eventually replace today's desktop-oriented software. And .NET functionality is beginning to show up in core products such as Windows and Microsoft Office. Ballmer has said that he's unsure how the company will make money with .NET. However, customer resistance—especially from the corporate sector—will probably ensure the presence of shrink-wrapped software in retail stores for years to come, even as the company attempts to move away from that sales model.

Since first announcing its .NET strategy in the summer of 2000, Microsoft has been busy educating users and developers about the upcoming changes. In September 2000, the company hosted a .NET Enterprise Server event at which it rolled out its Win2K-compatible server products, including SQL Server 2000 and Exchange 2000 Server. Whistler will be a minor Win2K upgrade that will feature a "skinnable" (i.e., highly customizable) UI that users can change at will, as well as the first-generation .NET runtime. Blackcomb will be a major release featuring significant changes. However, sources close to Microsoft told me that the company's programmers are having "panic attacks" about Mac OS X's new Aqua UI. Particularly troubling to Microsoft is Macintosh's new intuitive Finder (i.e., the Mac version of the Windows Explorer shell), which features several panes that simplify drilling down through subdirectories. Microsoft's UI team is suddenly playing catch-up-with-the-Mac again, and we probably won't see the fruits of their labors until Blackcomb arrives.