Microsoft has made no secret of its intention to dump the clunky Next Generation Windows Services title, and it has come to pass - the Next Big Thing is going to be called .NET, presumably meaning that Microsoft now proposes to take over the Internet in easy stages, following up later with .COM and - oh yes - .GOV and .MIL.
Bill Gates finally put flesh on the .NET bones today, and as predicted it's big, a project designed to encompass practically everything Microsoft produces and more, with XML a key plank of the whole operation. In terms of nomenclature this largely involves sticking .NET on the end of existing product names, so you get Windows.NET, MSN.NET and Office.NET, but the basic principle is that .NET itself is the platform, while existing products will be evolved by being .NET-enabled. So Windows.NET isn't a new version of Windows as such, despite the fact that Microsoft describes it as "the next generation of Windows". Instead, the first version of Windows "to incorporate .NET elements is scheduled to be available in 2001".
That is, it's Whistler. It's worth noting that "Microsoft will also continue to offer support for versions of the Windows platform without .NET services," and you can take that how you like - maybe it's a nod in the direction of the antitrust suit, or maybe it's just further evidence that what we have here is a middleware project that ties Microsoft products together, but doesn't actually change them at the core.
Microsoft wants to get the platform out there on the Web, and it wants it to be a services platform. The example of Windows.NET serves to illustrate how this will work. It'll incorporate "new .NET user experience technologies" (see the skins piece we did earlier today), and "is tightly integrated with .NET building block services including identity and search" (i.e. it's hooked into a Web-based services rental system. "Windows.NET will be self-supporting, featuring services that provide ongoing support and updates as users need them."
It'll provide a rich foundation for developers, and here's a good bit: "It will offer a programmable user experience that can be customised by corporations and individuals and programmed by .NET services including MSN.NET, bCentral for .NET and Office.NET, as well as a host of third party .NET services." That's quite a list of things that are going to be driving your machine for you. It also "facilitates the continuous delivery of software to customers," which we think must be that rental thing again.
In this light it's not exactly surprising that the Microsoft announcement front ends with "improved user experience puts people in control," and stresses that "innovative privacy technology" will be a foundation of its next-generation software.
Other things to watch include the "new Universal Canvas XML-based compound information architecture", which seems to be what compound documents did next, and the ".NET device software". That's a particularly interesting catch-all, "software to power a new breed of smart Internet-connected devices that can take maximum advantage of the .NET platform and fully participate in next-generation user experiences".
That'll include Pocket PCs, set-top boxes, mobile phones and games consoles. It may also explain why Microsoft might be maintaining a continuing interest in Win9x code, post Windows ME.
Although Steve Ballmer was talking about monthly rental fees earlier this year, the company seems to have been a little more reticent about it today. But it does describe "premium" services in addition to the MSN.NET ones. These will build on existing software in the games, entertainment, education and productivity areas, so you can expect online gaming (and hence X-box) to be included, along with productivity application service delivery to mobile devices. ®