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Longhorn and the battle for Web services

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says the next version of Windows won't necessarily determine the outcome of the jockeying among Microsoft, IBM, Sun and BEA.

Stories about plumbing aren't very sexy, but I think this one has the makings of a real beaut. IBM, Sun Microsystems and BEA Systems are each courting developers to help ensure that their server software is the preferred choice for implementing business applications. But in Redmond, Wash., the folks at Microsoft are again working hard on a plan to outflank their Java rivals.

This time, it's a software tool that will supposedly ease the creation of heavy-duty Web services applications. The product, which in some way, shape or function has been in the works for a couple of years, will provide a sticky middleware layer specially created to work with Microsoft products. (More details are expected at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference in October.)

The pitch to customers will be that the upcoming Longhorn release of Windows will go hand-in-hand with a Web services infrastructure superior to anything offered up by the J2EE camp.

If you think that sounds familiar, it is. Microsoft has been gradually re-creating nearly all of what Java does. A few years ago, it introduced a development language, C#, which is largely a clone of Java--but tied to Windows. This latest addition really makes Windows technologies a functional replacement for Java 2 Enterprise Edition-based software.

But lest I seem to damn Microsoft with faint praise, it's only fair to note that the company is taking a very complex task and making it easier. Microsoft did this with the Windows operating system (outflanking a handful of smaller companies), database creation and management (with SQL Server, which is giving Oracle stiff competition), and Web site building (its Internet Information Services and related tools such as Active Server Pages largely displaced Netscape Server). The same effort got poured into more mundane business tasks with Word, Excel and Exchange Server (which borrowed and enhanced the e-mail/messaging/workgroup concept from Lotus Notes so that companies didn't need dedicated Notes specialists).

As always, Microsoft's playbook puts Windows at the center of its strategy-?and for good reason: Why squander the advantages that accrue to a monopoly? Ah ha, more evidence of Microsoft's bad faith, you say? Not really. Microsoft may not be turning out many breakthrough products but management can spot?-and capitalize on--a good idea when it sees it. Just as important, there's nothing illegal about improving on an original concept (how about Apple's Macintosh computer and Xerox PARC's Alto?).

Microsoft has been gradually re-creating nearly all of what Java does.
And don't count on Microsoft being so dumb as to wave a red flag in front of the U.S. Department of Justice. Ever mindful of the particular sensitivity the government attaches to anything that smacks of technology "bundling," Microsoft has no interest in returning to a Washington, D.C., courtroom to debate the finer points of antitrust law with Uncle Sam's trustbusters.

What's more, I don?t know anybody of sane mind who believes that Microsoft's domination in Web services is a foregone conclusion. Fact is that Microsoft's .Net strategy for Web services remains a work in progress. And unlike the market for operating systems (where Windows bested OS/2) or office business apps (when it essentially disposed Lotus, WordPerfect and Borland), the company won't be able to count on its desktop monopoly to guarantee success. Microsoft is stumping IT managers on the need to upgrade to (the still-delayed) Longhorn operating system but big corporations are not dumping their J2EE-based systems just because Steve Ballmer says .Net is a grand idea.

Big corporations are not dumping their J2EE-based systems just because Steve Ballmer says .Net is a grand idea.
Why aren't more IT folks marching in lockstep? I can think of any number of reasons but the series of high-profile breaches in Microsoft software clearly isn't helping to win hearts and minds. Microsoft persists in building a monolithic family of highly integrated products instead of building compartmentalized and more secure systems. Will that be an issue as more IT administrators decide what they want to do about Web services in 2004?

A lot is going to depend on tools, and you can bet Microsoft is going to get more edgy with its pitch. If more developers implement Microsoft tools to build Web services applications that, in turn, will help sales of Longhorn when the OS finally arrives.

That's the beauty of a Windows-centric Web services strategy. Is it illegal? Not as long as Microsoft doesn't veer away from course. Sun's Scott McNealy is still squawking, but there's a world of difference between being a monopoly and being a predatory monopoly.