One year on, Microsoft's shift to Internet gets mixed reviews

In the year since he declared himself hard-core about the Internet, Bill Gates has swung the 13,000-employee, US$8.7 billion Microsoft battleship to face the online realm head-on.

In the year since he declared himself hard-core about the Internet, Bill Gates has swung the 13,000-employee, US$8.7 billion Microsoft battleship to face the online realm head-on.

In its wake, Microsoft has developed a string of products that users wouldn't have seen otherwise, such as the revamped, Web-enhanced Windows interface due to ship next year.

"Microsoft didn't see the Internet happening as fast as it did. But it recovered and brought out a lot of new products a lot faster than it used to," says Mike Albert, chairman of the Web advisory board at Bechtel Group, in Houston.

But Microsoft has also has rankled many users, including the Internet diehards who disdain its Windows-centric approach to the multiplatform global network and customers who complain about problems with Microsoft's products.

Getting to that hard-core status will require a lot more work, users and analysts agree.

"Although Internet competition has forced Microsoft to release products faster, it'd be really nice if it could work on the same standards as everyone else," says John Larson, a project leader of World Wide Web activities at Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "But Microsoft's not an open company. It didn't grow up that way."

The latest complaint, for example, centres on Microsoft's plan to create its own Windows-only compiler for Java, a cross-platform, Internet programming language. Users are worried that a Gatesian flavour of Java will be incompatible with Sun's original.

The vendor's main Internet policy is to embrace and extend. Instead of building entire product lines from scratch to adhere to Internet and Web standards, such as Hypertext Transport Protocol or Hypertext Markup Language, Microsoft has primarily retrofitted proprietary applications to support those protocols.

In the past year, the following key pieces of Microsoft's Internet strategy have appeared:

* ActiveX, an Internet-enabled version of Microsoft's OLE technology used to build add-on modules for Windows applications.

* A runtime compiler and browser support for Sun's Java, even though Microsoft touts ActiveX as an alternative to Sun's multiplatform programming language.

* Web server functions were integrated into the Windows NT operating system to give users a simpler way to create and maintain Web sites on NT.

* Windows 95, Windows NT and Web-style hypertext interfaces were melded to provide a single entry into online and traditional business systems.

Certainly, Microsoft has made notable gains.

"A year ago, we were trying to catch up and establish a market. We did that and then some," says Yusef Mehdi, a group product manager of Microsoft's Internet platforms unit. The company went from zero market share in browsers to roughly 20% today, he says, and from having no Web server software to having a suite of products that competes with rivals such as Netscape.

Indeed, if Microsoft hadn't tackled the Internet as aggressively as it did, Netscape products wouldn't be as strong or as affordable today, says Mark Gallagher, first vice-president of technology administration at First Chicago NBD, a bank in Chicago.

"If Microsoft remained asleep at the wheel, Netscape would be . . . charging us US$50 for Navigator and US$5000 minimum for Web server software," Gallagher says, referring to Netscape's original prices.

Since Microsoft began offering its free Internet Explorer browser and Internet Information Server (IIS) Web server bundled with the Windows NT operating systems, Netscape has cut prices at least twice. A Netscape server that cost US$5000 last year now costs US$995.

On the downside, Microsoft's embrace-and-extend software strategy has made running online applications more complicated than it should be, says Jay Vander Wall, a technical architect at Dow Chemical in Midland, Mich.

Microsoft's IIS Web server is so tied to Windows NT that webmasters must be NT administrators to maintain it, Vander Wall says.

Microsoft officials say that kind of integration means Web sites are easier to set up. For example, IIS uses the same security features as Windows NT. That means end users need to provide names and passwords only once when they log on. By comparison, a Netscape Web server uses security mechanisms that are separate from the operating system.

Now that Microsoft has established itself as a serious contender on the Internet, users want to see the company innovate on its own rather than react to Netscape.

"If I'm Microsoft, I'd be concentrating in the next 12 months on giving something to users that they can't get anywhere else," says Oliver Pflug, president of SiteCast, an intranet consulting firm in San Francisco.

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