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Microsoft plays up COM

The software giant is expected to announce partnerships that will allow COM-based applications to work better on non-Windows operating systems.

Windows NT isn't the only game in town.

Microsoft is set to prove that it understands that reality at next month's TechEd conference in New Orleans.

The software giant will try to convince technology buyers that its development tools, component object model (COM) architecture, and Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS) middleware can ease the work of building enterprise-class distributed applications that span software from a variety of vendors.

At the conference, Microsoft is expected to announce a series of partnerships with other technology providers to use both COM and MTS in third-party products, sources close to the company said. The partnerships will allow COM-based applications to work better on non-Windows operating systems.

A Microsoft representative would not identify the technology providers involved in the partnership announcement.

Microsoft's Windows-centric COM strategy has not racked up the same industry-wide backing that Sun Microsystems' Enterprise JavaBeans technology has enjoyed in recent months.

Server technology makers, including IBM, Oracle, and Novell, have pledged support for Enterprise JavaBeans, which will allow application components to run unchanged on software from different manufacturers.

Microsoft is hoping to broaden the appeal of its core technologies beyond the Windows-only world, sources close to the company said. In order for Microsoft to become a true enterprise-class technology player, the company needs to position its tools and technologies as an easy way to bridge the mish-mash of disparate systems that most companies use.

In the process, Microsoft hopes to woo many corporate programmers and systems integrators, who do not see Microsoft as an enterprise player, away from Java and Unix and toward the company's Windows NT-based technologies.

"Microsoft won't be in the mission-critical space for awhile," said Wendell Laidley, an analyst with Deutsche Morgan Grenfell. "But don't underestimate them. The team they have hired is top-notch, and they will attack the pricing structure of the market."

At TechEd, the company will also cozy up to business application software providers, including Baan and SAP, by offering the ability to customize business applications through its Visual Studio 6.0 development tool bundle.

Microsoft is hoping that the new Visual Studio features, which build on COM and MTS, also give it immediate credibility with business technology buyers who still don't consider Microsoft an "enterprise class" technology provider, analysts said.

The TechEd announcements are just a warm up for Microsoft's real battle--convincing developers that its upcoming COM+ middleware, which will meld transaction processing, message queuing, and load balancing, among other features--is superior to competing products for building distributed applications from IBM, Oracle, Iona, and BEA Systems.

Distributed applications let big companies use their computing power more efficiently, by breaking huge applications down into manageable chunks that can be run across the network on a group of servers. As application processing needs grow, the theory holds, companies can just add a new server to further divvy up the processing load.

But building distributed component applications is still particularly difficult. Developers are faced with a rat's nest of problems, such as handling application communications, balancing server loads, ensuring security of transactions, and minimizing network traffic.

New and soon to be released middleware products from IBM and BEA, which combine a slew of technologies for building Web-based distributed e-commerce and order processing applications, help to get the job done, but have high price tags.

With COM+, Microsoft hopes to offer similar technology at rock-bottom prices. COM+ is expected to debut next year in the form of an option pack for Windows NT 5.0, analysts said.

Microsoft is returning to a time-tested strategy of making complex technology much easier to use through COM+ and its development tools.

But no matter how easy to use the new technology is, Microsoft will still have an uphill battle convincing technology buyers that its Windows-only outlook has changed, analysts said.

"MTS and other Microsoft technologies are still brand new, they are less proven than competitor's products, and they still only work with Windows NT and Microsoft SQL Server," said Karen Boucher, an analyst with the Standish Group.