In terms of the great corporations of the world, Microsoft is still a new kid on the block. It is a fabulously rich and successful business...

In terms of the great corporations of the world, Microsoft is still a new kid on the block. It is a fabulously rich and successful business. Nonetheless, the company has grown from nothing to a corporate superpower in a very short time. What is perhaps more interesting is that although the origins of Microsoft can be traced to the mid-1970s, it is really the Windows family of operating systems that has brought the company great success. Based on Presentation Manager for OS/2, Windows has seen many incarnations from Windows/286 to Windows 7, but the essential way that you use Windows and Windows applications has not changed in all that time. (Granted, there have been advances in the user interface and the hardware, but you still use the version of Excel included with Office 2007 in roughly the same way that you used the first version.)

The scary thing to Microsoft and its investors is that the pace of technological change means that they cannot be sure that Windows is going to be as relevant in 2020 as it is today. All it takes is one change in the way that people want to use computers, and the Windows platform’s current incarnation may become obsolete.

It would be unfair to say that Microsoft has been extremely lucky over the past several years in the way that it has reacted to the opportunities offered by the Internet. Do not underestimate the number of smart people working for that company. When they discovered that companies such as Netscape were making money with the Internet and identified the risk, they turned a large corporation on a dime and went after an unexplored market with teeth bared. Their gambles paid off, and with the invention of the .NET Framework, corporations and users are leveraging the power of the Internet in new ways.

Luckily for Microsoft, the applications that drove the adoption of the Internet worked well on a desktop operating system. Microsoft managed to adapt the Windows platform to provide the two killer Internet applications, e-mail and the web browser, to end users with a minimum of hassle, securing the Windows platform for another few years. It also delivered several powerful tools for developers, such as Active Server Pages Extended (ASPX), web services, and Internet Information Server (IIS), and improved existing tools such as Visual Basic and SQL Server, all of which made it easier for developers to build advanced Internet applications.

MSN 1.0

When the Internet started to become popular in the early 1990s, Microsoft was trying to push the original incarnation of Microsoft Network (MSN). Rather than the successful portal that it is today, MSN was originally a proprietary dial-up service much like CompuServe. In the beginning, MSN did not provide access to the rich world of the Internet as we know it today; it was a closed system. Let us call the original MSN ‘‘MSN 1.0.’’

MSN 1.0 provided an opportunity for innovative companies to steal a march on Microsoft, which was already seen as an unshakable behemoth thanks to the combination of Windows and Office. As it turned out, it was a missed opportunity.

Imagine an alternative 1995 in which Microsoft stuck to its guns with MSN 1.0, rather than plotted the course that brought it where it is today. Imagine that a large computer manufacturer, such as Dell, identified this burgeoning community of forward-thinking business leaders and geeks called the Internet. Also suppose Dell predicted that Microsoft’s strategy was to usurp this community with MSN 1.0 — in other words, rather than cooperate with this community, Microsoft would decide to crush it at all costs.

Now Dell needs to find a way to build this community. It predicts that home users and small businesses will love the Internet and so puts together a very low-cost PC. They need software to run on it and, luckily, they predict that the Web and e-mail will be the killer applications of this new community.

They find Linus Torvalds, who has been working on this thing called Linux since 1991, and they find Sun, which is keen to start pushing Java as a programming language to anyone who will listen. Another business partner builds a competent, usable suite of productivity applications for the platform using Java. Another business partner builds easy-to-use connectivity solutions that enable the computers to connect to the Internet and other computers in the LAN, easily and cheaply. Dell, Sun, and their selected business partners start pushing this new computer to anyone and everyone. The concept is a success and, for the first time since 1981, the dominance of the IBM-compatible PC is over, and sales of Microsoft products plummet — all because Microsoft did not move on a critical opportunity.

We all know that this did not happen, but there is nothing outlandish or crazy about this scenario. It could have happened, and that is what scared Microsoft. It came very close to losing everything, and .NET is its insurance against this happening again.

The .NET Vision

To understand .NET, you have to ignore the marketing hype from Microsoft and really think about what it is doing.With the first version of the .NET Framework and indeed even now,Microsoft appears to be pushing .NET as a platform for building web services and large-scale enterprise systems. Web services is a tiny, tiny part of what .NET is all about. In simple terms, .NET splits an operating system’s platform (be it Windows, Linux, Mac OS, or any other OS) into two layers: a programming layer and an execution layer.

All computer platforms are trying to achieve roughly the same effect: to provide applications to the user. If you wanted to write a book, you would have the choice of using the word processor in StarOffice under Linux, or Word under Windows. However, you would use the computer in the same way; in other words, the application remains the same, irrespective of the platform.

It is a common understanding that software support is a large part of any platform’s success. Typically, the more high-quality the available software is for a given platform, the larger the consumer adoption of that platform will be. The PC is the dominant platform because, back in the early 1980s, it was the predominant target for software writers. That trend has continued to this day, and people are writing applications that run on Windows, which targets the 32-bit and 64-bit Intel processors. The Intel processor harks back to the introduction of the Intel 8086 processor in 1979 and today includes the Intel Core family of processors. It also includes competitors such as AMD’s Athlon and Turion.

Without .NET, developers are still reliant on Windows, and Windows is still reliant on Intel. Although the relationship between Microsoft and Intel is thought to be fairly symbiotic, it is reasonable to assume that the strategists at Microsoft, who are feeling (rightly) paranoid about the future, might want to lessen the dependence on a single family of chips, too. The Windows/Intel combination (sometimes known as Wintel) is also known as the execution layer. This layer takes the code and runs it — simple as that.

Although .NET originally targeted and still targets only the Windows platform, you are seeing development communities using open-source projects to convert .NET to run on other platforms such as Linux and Unix. This means that a program written by a .NET developer on Windows could run unchanged on Linux. In fact, the Mono project (www.mono-project.com) has already released several versions of its product. This project has developed an open-source version of a C# and VB.NET compiler, a runtime for the Common Language Infrastructure (CLI, also known as the Common Intermediate Language, or CIL), a subset of the .NET classes, and other .NET goodies independent of Microsoft’s involvement. .NET is a programming layer. It is totally owned and controlled byMicrosoft. By turning all developers into .NET programmers, rather than Windows programmers, software is written as .NET software, not Windows software.

To understand the significance of this, imagine that a new platform is launched and starts eating up market share like crazy. Imagine that, like the Internet, this new platform offers a revolutionary way of working and living that offers real advantages. With the .NET vision in place, all Microsoft has to do to gain a foothold on this platform is develop a version of .NET that works on it. All of the .NET software now runs on the new platform, lessening the chance that the new platform will usurp Microsoft’s market share.


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