Remaking Microsoft

FRAMINGHAM (07/17/2000) - Multiple choice: Microsoft.Net is Microsoft Corp.'s way of (a) reinventing the mainframe, (b) reinventing the Internet or (c) reinventing the PC. Tough call, eh? Microsoft hates the idea of PCs having to connect to a host computer to do something useful. It's not just Bill Gates - Microsoft's whole corporate culture despises the mainframe as the collapsed legacy of past technology on whose rubble the company's wealth and power have been built. Pinning Microsoft's future on Windows-reinvented-as-a-mainframe isn't just unthinkable, it's absurd.

Then there's the Internet, another absurdity for a different reason: It's built on other people's software, software that Microsoft has no way of defining or controlling. You can't build an empire based on cooperation - you've got to have control. That's also fundamental to Microsoft's corporate culture.

And the PC? It's been the core of Microsoft's culture for almost two decades.

In 1981, Microsoft's hot product was a plug-in circuit card that let Apple Computer Inc. II users run CP/M - an operating system Microsoft didn't make.

But ever since, the PC and its software have been the company's bread and butter - and heart and soul. Reinventing them as a set of distributed services is an idea that has to leave a lot of folks in Redmond queasy.

And that's a problem - for Microsoft, sure, but also for the rest of us.

Because while Microsoft is fighting with itself over what .Net will be and do, we can't make plans.

Look at the trouble Microsoft executives had last week just describing .Net.

Paul Maritz probably gave the simplest description, calling it a shift from client/server to "client/server/services." Bill Gates' best shot was saying that "everything that was an application becomes a Web site." Steve Ballmer gushed about the wonders of XML and user interfaces.

Not exactly a consistent vision, is it? It isn't just the products and services that haven't been rolled out. Right now, it sounds like the whole idea of .Net is pre-alpha.

So is this vapor-vision? I doubt it. I think .Net is all about the end of the PC as Microsoft has known it for two decades - the PC that's central to the user's experience, the PC that runs the applications and gives the user computing independence. That's all over, according to .Net.

Which, of course, means that the core of the Microsoft corporate culture is all over, too.

And no matter how important that change is, no matter how crucial driving a stake through the heart of the PC may be to Microsoft's future, it's going to tear the company apart more ruthlessly than any judge.

Unfortunately, there's no near-term upside to this split - not for Microsoft, and not for us. .Net will change furiously in the months to come - not due to the usual technical problems but because, at heart, Microsoft won't want to make this revolutionary change.

That means we won't know what we'll be getting. .Net could end up as nothing more than a scheme for downloading applications from the Internet if Microsoft loses its resolve to reinvent itself. Or if the company embraces the .Net idea completely, Microsoft could radically reimagine and redefine computing.

Which will it be? Which do we need it to be? Ordinarily, I'd just wait for your comments by e-mail (and you're always happy to oblige). This time, though, I'm trying something different: I've agreed to host a forum at Computerworld Online. Go to the Web site, and on the left-side menu under Opinions, click on Forums to find the .Net forum.

Then let us know whether you think .Net will become a trivial change or a real revolution, whether Microsoft can pull it off - and whether it will be worth the trouble.

Hayes, Computerworld's staff columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years.

His e-mail address is frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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