Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates ushered in a sweeping new set of programming software, middleware and Internet services Thursday under the umbrella name Microsoft.NET.
"You could say it is a bet-the-company thing," Gates said. "We're putting our resources behind .NET."
The multibillion-dollar initiative is part of Microsoft's effort to recreate itself for what Gates refers to as the next generation of the Internet--where information is available anytime on any device.
"This is a new platform," Gates said. "It will redefine the user interface as much as the transition from DOS to Windows in terms of what you see on the screen. No Microsoft product isn't touched by .NET capabilities."
For some time, Gates has spoken of the evolution of the Internet to the point where software will be written to take the initiative in gathering information from Web sites. He has also talked about the need for microphone-equipped computers to help enable realtime communications, maps and speech-recognition software and tools.
Although his talk on Thursday to more than 500 media and analysts was similarly theoretical and forward-looking, it is a major step for the company in outlining a plan to leverage its Internet strategy to gain customers and appease shareholders. The platform will extend across various Microsoft services and client and server products, Gates said.
Key elements of the platform are forthcoming--or already designed around the belief that XML is core in such products as SQL Server 2000, Exchange 2000, and BizTalk 2000. Microsoft will release Windows.NET version 1 next year and follow it in two years with another major release and updated versions of Office and Visual Studio, Gates said.
"We have an opportunity to take this vision and apply the magic of software and make this vision a reality," Gates said.
Nonetheless, Microsoft faces a field of competitors pushing similar software-as-services platforms. IBM, with WebSphere; Novell, with One Net; and Sun Microsystems have all gotten the jump on Microsoft.
Recognizing that some of Microsoft.NET is still on the drawing board, Gates carefully pointed out how the platform depends on advances in a programming language based on XML and in broadband and hardware.
"It's not all here and now," Gates said. "This is about how we are focusing the R&D efforts of the company. For the first time, we'll have a platform designed around the human interface."
Today's computing environment is characterized by numerous islands, Gates said. "The PC at home and the PC at work is a manual operation to move your files around between then devices."
A new programming model within the umbrella will include a natural programming interface, "a starting point for getting away from the keyboard as the only way we interact" with the computer, he said.
"When the natural interface goes into these new platforms, we're gong out to developers and say handwriting and speech will go into these new applications."
Microsoft demonstrated a prototype tablet PC running Windows 2000. In addition, the company demonstrated of a new software feature called Smart Tags, which can recognize names in an e-mail message and retrieve information about that person. It can also work with the natural user interface to schedule a meeting with another recognized name.
Microsoft Group Vice President Bob Muglia highlighted the opportunities of .NET for small businesses and pointed to the growth of Microsoft's online bCentral portal for small businesses. Lead management services, digital dashboard and Outlook Web services, and additional partner services will be added to bCentral, he said. Enterprise customers will see Microsoft.NET services that are broadened to include mobile devices, for instance.
Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO, and Rick Beluzzo and Paul Maritz, group vice presidents, are scheduled to make presentations on Thursday. A question-and-answer session with all the executives will follow.