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Microsoft comes up with a new way of dominating the market

By Stephen Ballantyne

Friday 30th June 2000

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CLOUDY FUTURE: Steve Ballmer (left) and Bill Gates tell members of the media about .Net software during Forum 2000 at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Seattle
The way the inhabitants of Seattle appear to prefer to express their rebellious impulses is by giving the government the finger. There's continuity here: Bill Gates and his pals at the top of Microsoft were thumbing their noses at the government at their Forum 2000 press conference last week, announcing a programme of software development that could only be read as wilfully defiant.

The US government may regard Microsoft as a monopoly that needs to be restrained; Microsoft wants to change the way the internet is used. The government says Microsoft has exploited its control of operating systems and applications to suppress competition; Microsoft wants to integrate applications, operating systems and the internet more tightly than ever. The government says integrating an internet browser with the operating system is unfair to competitors; Microsoft says you ain't seen nothing yet.

Forum 2000 was something of a misnomer - the information flow was strictly in one direction, from Microsoft to about 400 journalists and "analysts." What we saw was the unveiling of Microsoft.Net, Microsoft's way of putting together a new market-dominating system. Separately, nothing that was shown was new, except perhaps for the introduction of a new browser convention; everything Mr Gates presented is already available from Microsoft or its competitors. But the combination was enough to make Mr Gates and his chief executive, Steve Ballmer, beamingly happy.

The "universal canvas" Mr Gates demonstrates and which turns up in the videos that are shown is an XML-enabled cross between a browser and Microsoft's Outlook mail and data management application. At the moment it has a user interface that lifts heavily from Apple's Mac OSX work, with subtly curved border elements, discrete horizontally striped backgrounds and even some transparent gel-like buttons. But that's okay - the US courts have already established Microsoft's right to take any design features it likes from Apple's user interface.

The major interface innovation is a new link style - by reading embedded XML tags the universal canvas can put a dotted underline beneath names and other words, rather as existing browsers put a plain blue underscore below URLs and other hyperlinks. The dotted underlines indicate a pop-up menu can be displayed, a menu of links to documents or relevant websites. Some of the documents are in Microsoft's Excel or Word format - the new browser displays them with full editing capability.

In the new .Net world, Office applications will no longer reside on users' hard drives - instead they'll be delivered across the internet from Microsoft servers, as products such as Citrix or SCO's Tarantella can do today with ordinary browsers.

Some parts of .Net are reminiscent of Chrome, an aborted Microsoft proposal a few years ago to fancy up the internet in various proprietary ways. That failed to appear because Microsoft lacked confidence Chrome would be able to compete - but apparently now it is willing to take the chance. Under the .Net scheme users will store their data in some vague place - diagrams showing how users connect to the internet typically depict the wider internet as a cloud and Mr Gates referred to the internet as "the cloud" several times. The vagueness reflects the structure of the net and Microsoft's desire to make better use of client computing resources.

Mr Gates says - and I'm inclined to agree with him - that putting everything on to big servers and giving users low-powered terminals isn't a step forward. But it's only because the latest version of Windows includes a directory-based identification system rather like Novell's that this sort of thing can be managed.

Videos showed people in a hypothetical near-future interacting with .Net-based systems via desktop PCs, tablet devices and Pocket PCs. People could wirelessly access their daily schedules and contact lists from strangers' computers, which download information wirelessly from - where? That sort of thing requires directory-based identification like that already provided by Novell's Digital Me - or by Microsoft's similar-sounding Passport system. I doubt Novell will be pleased.

Mr Gates was vague about what will be necessary to make .Net work. XML (extensible markup language) is a must but that doesn't require a different operating system - it's meant to be an industry standard, not a proprietary Microsoft technology. The minimal browser requirement will be the ability to parse HTML 3.2, which is universal - but if that's so, why does Mr Gates say the system will work best on a forthcoming version of Windows that will finally combine the Windows 9x and 2000 code bases?

Being able to click from one application to another as seamlessly as was demonstrated in Mr Gates' demo videos implies a high level of browser/operating system/application integration, which Microsoft has specifically been ordered not to do.

Sometimes it appears Microsoft moves in a different world, where government rulings don't count and everyone is affluent and happy. Actually, that's not unlike the way things may actually be at Microsoft's corporate headquarters. Nobody at Microsoft's facility in Redmond does anything as crass as actually making anything physical. Work is done but it is work the way modern American gentlemen and gentlewomen prefer to do it - dainty and all in the mind.

"The job's not done till (some product) won't run" - this was said to be the slogan around Microsoft when Windows 95 was under development, with whatever the most disliked competing product of the time in the "some product" spot. When I reminded some Microsoft development people of this they were mildly offended. It seems, at least at middle levels of development management, Microsoft is genuinely committed to making their stuff play nice with the other people's software. And those little signs all over the place reading "friends don't let friends use Palm" are only a playful jest to encourage competitiveness.

Will .Net be attractive enough to make users switch to it? There are still plenty of happy Win 95 and even Win 3.1 users out there, and to make matters worse, Windows.Net, as far as anyone could tell from what was said, will be based on (and reliant on) Win 2000 technology. Uniting the Win 2000/NT and Win 9x code bases is something Microsoft people have often spoken of doing but have yet to achieve.

The Redmond campus may well a magic kingdom that encourages a sense of cosy invincibility. But Microsoft should be aware it has had failures in the past - nobody could be too happy to recall Bob, for example, or the first two versions of Windows CE (and that's particularly important, given the major role Microsoft apparently sees the Pocket PC playing in the .Net world).

Some of Microsoft's .Net stuff was cool, sure enough, but the company continues to be devoid of significant innovation. Microsoft markets other people's ideas very well and it has changed the way we all work. Whether this will be tolerated much longer by the US government may have more to do with the outcome of the next presidential election than the interesting but potentially excessively ubiquitous collection of technologies Microsoft showed last week.

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