‘A’ for effort, perhaps

If you get a bad report card in grade school, your teacher usually requires a parent’s written comments to verify that it has been reviewed. Now that Microsoft chairman Bill Gates has graded the company’s progress on its .Net initiative, someone has to do the sign-off.

Gates’ comments

this week at a day-long .Net tutorial in Redmond only acknowledged what most people in the industry have realized for a long time: that Microsoft’s strategy has gotten off track and has failed to engage its customers in any meaningful way. The “”grades”” Gates gave — which included a “”C”” for developing the software-as-a-service concept and an “”incomplete”” for linking businesses electronically — reflected the generosity typical of a self-evaluation. About two years after it was first introduced, the .Net campaign has been set back by poor marketing and even worse customer relations.

I first heard Microsoft talk about .Net when the company forged a deal with Ottawa-based Corel Corp., with which it would collaborate on projects under the initiative (don’t ask what become of that partnership). On a conference call announcing the agreement, reporters and analysts grilled Tom Button, general manager of Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft’s developer division, for a .Net definition. He said it refers to a forthcoming software platform specifically designed for developers creating Internet applications. It would allow code written in many different programming languages (including XML) to be used in high-performance environments safely, he said.

No real mention of Web services here, which is part of the problem. Many people in the industry fail to grasp the latter, which are integral to the former. I have mentioned it before, but it’s worth repeating that the best and most detailed explanation I have found comes from the Stencil Group’s Web site. Like any good research firm, however, this definition avoid vendor-specific references like .Net. It is therefore up to Microsoft to properly train the industry on its plans, which was probably the motive behind the belated boot camp.

This isn’t the first time Microsoft has had trouble outlining its strategy. A few years ago the company made the decision to rebrand Windows NT as Windows 2000 — a convenient way of avoiding the fact the software was originally due in 1999. The marketing didn’t matter then, either: many people still call it NT.

Assuming this week’s refresher makes a difference among influential media and analysts, Microsoft’s more important challenge is to foster acceptance for the innovations it has planned. Privacy and security concerns over its PassPort service essentially derailed the MyServices consumer portion of the .Net plan. MyServices, of course, represented the consumer side of the strategy, but its early struggles do not bode well for Microsoft’s prospects in the more lucrative business-to-business side. The company is already at work on a technology, TrustBridge, that would create secure electronic connections for information exchange and transactions between partner companies. Even if it works right the first time, TrustBridge could face the same skepticism as Passport, particularly given the security breaches that have already stung corporate users of Microsoft’s IIS.

Gates admitted that the company was “”premature”” in rebranding some products as .Net without adding anything very new. It is because Microsoft was slow to embrace the possibilities of the Internet that is rushing ahead, but its difficulty to catch up is compounded by its quest to fulfil its Trustworthy Computing initiative. You can’t have one without the other, and in this case you should probably have the second one first.

There is still time for Microsoft to deliver on .Net, despite the momentum gained by rival initiatives like Sun Microsystems’ Liberty Alliance. Consider Gates’ comments as mid-term grades. In any case, the final report card will not be his to complete.

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Shane Schick
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