A number of Microsoft's Internet-related initiatives have come to light recently which, when taken together, paint the picture of a company moving comfortably into a new online era. As Microsoft president and CEO Steve Ballmer said this week during his keynote address at the PC Forum in Scottsdale, Arizona, the future of the company is centered on Web-based services, not the more traditional PC-based software development that the company has focused on previously.

"In the world of the Internet, you have to ask yourself what is an operating system," he Ballmer. The platform of the future, he said, was Web-based. But before this platform matures, the situation needs to be reversed: Currently, site builders, not users, control the structure of the Web. So the company is working on technology that will allow clients of any type to integrate more closely with Web servers. And Microsoft will provide the type of authentication and verification services that are currently the province of VeriSign, which was recently purchased by Network Solutions. The company will spend billions of dollars this year on Internet-related research and development.

Microsoft also announced this week that it will integrate RealNames' Internet keyword solution into MSN Search and the Internet Explorer Web browser. This will provide users with a simple navigational system that's been employed on online services such as America Online (AOL) and CompuServe for some time. With Internet keywords, users can work with simple descriptive words rather than arcane URLs and domain names. So you can type in words such as "GM" or "Ford" when you want to get information about automobiles. Definitive words will immediately launch the correct home page in the browser, while more vague keywords will result in a list of possible matches, sorted by relevance.

There is a dark side to Internet keywords, however: Companies are able to purchase keywords to drive traffic to their sites. But Microsoft and RealNames say that they are committed to protecting brand names and trademarks, and they will work with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a standards body, to make name allocation an open standard.

Finally, Microsoft announced a $1 billion pact with Andersen Consulting that will provide Internet and enterprise services based on Windows 2000. As part of the joint venture, a new company called Avanade will be created that will provide training on Microsoft platforms and a number of Internet and technical services. Avanade, which will be based in Seattle before opening branch offices around the world, will focus on high-end enterprise customers that require e-commerce solutions.

As Microsoft makes its move to the Internet, it will inevitably clash more and more with Linux, the upstart Unix-like operating system that is already providing decent competition in the server space. Meanwhile, Linux vendors are working on simplifying and improving the Linux end-user experience so that it might more effectively compete with the Windows desktop monopoly. Ballmer says that Linux and Windows are destined to meet head-to-head.

"We'll meet in the marketplace," Ballmer said. "And that will be a better thing for both us and for the Linux community. The enthusiasm around Linux cannot be ignored.