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.Net and the Emperor's new clothes

It's no surprise to find out that customers are confused by .Net, writes CNET's Charles Cooper. That's because Microsoft itself is still baffled by its own software initiative.

When it comes to .Net, Microsoft always sounds cocksure about how this bet-the-company software initiative is going to rock the computing universe.

But each time Bill Gates gets going on the subject, he winds up stumping us with declarations like this: "We don't have the user-centricity until we understand context, which is way beyond presence--presence is the most trivial notion of context."

Hegel on acid couldn't be more impenetrable.

Yes, it's long been Microsoft's habit to speak about .Net in tongues, just as Bill G did in the line above, which I lifted from the Microsoft chairman's recent talk with press and analysts at a .Net briefing day.

Hegel on acid couldn't be more impenetrable.
And the company continues to turn out torturous position papers with alacrity. That's bad news in bells since most of this grand software initiative still exists only as a PowerPoint demo on steroids.

But even Gates can't ignore the reality any longer.

After blowing smoke the last couple of years, Microsoft is finally acknowledging what the rest of us only said sotto voce: This project, as even Gates might allow, remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

"We still get people saying to us, 'What is .Net?'" he said. "It's one of those great questions that people can say, 'Yes, it's come into focus at the infrastructure level,' but a little bit where we go beyond that has been unclear to people."

That's the computer equivalent of the emperor stripping off his new clothes to reveal the Redmond family jewels.

Microsoft has long suffered a failure to communicate when it comes to .Net.

Anecdote: After the .Net introduction in 2000, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer ran into a bunch of reporters at a press reception. "So," he asked, thrusting a carrot into the cheese dip, "what do you guys think .Net is?"

"Shoot," I mumbled. "He's the one with the multiple zeros in the bank account. If the company CEO can't explain it, what does he want from me?"

Actually, Ballmer was on a fishing expedition. He simply wanted to test whether the press would take away the right message from the day's indoctrination. Two years later, I'm still not sure Ballmer would get the answer he desired.

The daily newspapers describe .Net one way; the trade rags describe it another way. The common points of agreement are references to programs that understand XML and to Web services that will allow software and devices to communicate easily.

Microsoft has done a good job talking up XML and the surrounding Web services protocols. But elsewhere it's a mess. Whichever genius came up with the marketing-challenged name of .Net My Services should be sent to serve as Larry Ellison's gyochu as penance.

The underlying idea of .Net My Services was compelling enough: It was supposed to let people access personal information online on any device. They would then be able shop or bank or check their e-mail online. The only problem was Microsoft couldn't figure out where it wanted to go and the project got sidetracked because of internal debates about the proper business model and a lack of industry support.

Elsewhere, the .Net-spawned concept of software as a service still isn't ready for prime time. It works just fine with Windows Update, but that's a far cry from the usefulness that would get Corporate America to pay for automatic updating across various devices.

Microsoft puts out great videos, but the reality is that .Net remains largely a repackaging of existing technology, accompanied by a collection of jargon-ridden press releases.
Microsoft also has considerably more work to do before it can consider Passport an unqualified success. The authentication service, which stores personal information and passwords, lets people surf the Internet without requiring them to re-enter their personal data at different Web sites. About 14 million users have so far registered for Passport, according to research firm Gartner. But the raw numbers are misleading. The majority of people signing up did so because joining the authentication service is required before people can use certain features of Windows XP and Hotmail e-mail, among other Microsoft products.

Microsoft puts out great videos, but the reality is that .Net remains largely a repackaging of existing technology, accompanied by a collection of jargon-ridden press releases. That's not a business strategy; that's a Hail Mary pass.

Breathing life into grandiose visions is no easy feat. Hewlett-Packard's former CEO Lew Platt couldn't do it. When he began plugging the company's E-speak technology in 1999, Platt was trying to explain what was the first comprehensive vision of Web services. But it fell on deaf ears--in no small part because of HP's own bumbling--and in the end, the company shelved the project.

Bill Gates can't afford the same luxury of being vague. He and Microsoft are in too deep to blow it. What's called for now is clear speaking, the sooner, the better.