Microsoft Putting Its Muscle Behind Web Programming
By STEVE LOHR
fter spending three and a half years, five million hours of labor and $2 billion, Microsoft (news/quote) begins a huge campaign today to woo millions of computer programmers to use its new generation of Internet software tools.
Programming tools may be an arcane niche of the computer industry. But, underscoring how crucial the new campaign is to Microsoft's strategy for growth, Bill Gates, the chairman, is scheduled to speak to thousands of software developers in San Francisco, and Steven A. Ballmer, the chief executive, will speak to thousands more in Chicago.
The outcome of this campaign will partly determine the shape of competition in the software industry in the next several years. The competition's focus will be shifting to so-called Web services clever software that opens the door to offering a new level of computerized automation and convenience to companies and consumers.
Microsoft and its rivals, like I.B.M. (news/quote) and Sun Microsystems (news/quote), are scrambling to supply businesses with these services, which will allow computers to share data across the Internet and, when so programmed, handle all kinds of tasks without human intervention.
A Web service application, for example, might link a company's inventory database with that of its suppliers, so parts would be automatically reordered when supplies ran low. A car's navigation computer an increasingly common feature in new automobiles could be linked to a region's traffic-tracking database with a Web services application. That would make constantly updated traffic reports available for helping the driver find the least- congested route home.
To corporations, the promise of Web services is both in automation to cut costs and in new offerings for consumers. Web services appear to be an exception to the trend of an overall slump in technology spending.
"This is the year that a lot of investments are being made," said David M. Smith, an analyst at Gartner Inc. (news/quote), which estimates that sales of Web services software will increase fivefold, to $21 billion, by 2005.
Web services are at the center of Microsoft's plans, said Eric Rudder, a senior vice president, "and the tools effort is the key to success or failure."
The new programming platform cost $2 billion to develop, Mr. Rudder observed, but that cost is "nothing compared to the opportunity."
Much of Microsoft's success over the years can be traced to its understanding of and catering to rank-and- file developers. They are the architects, designers and bricklayers of the information age, building the software that animates everything from the world's financial markets to fuel injectors in trucks.
Microsoft started out in the software tools business with Microsoft Basic, its version of the programming language created by John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz at Dartmouth College. To this day, Mr. Gates speaks with pride of his achievement in squeezing Microsoft Basic into the tiny memory space available in microcomputers in the mid-1970's.
Microsoft's juggernaut product, the Windows operating system, did not really take off until 1991, six years after its introduction, when the company delivered Visual Basic, a tool that made it far easier for developers to write Windows programs.
Microsoft hopes to build on that heritage in its effort to attract millions of developers to write Web services applications with its tools.
"Microsoft is first and foremost a software company," said Mr. Rudder, who heads the Microsoft division that caters to outside programmers. "It is a company of developers. We think like developers, and we love them."
Yet a rerun of a different heritage is what concerns Microsoft's competitors and some antitrust regulators. They see Microsoft's Web services tools a new computer language called C# and an integrated tool kit and programming platform called Visual Studio .Net as part of Microsoft's plan to extend the reach and dominance of its Windows operating system.
Analysts say Microsoft has built an impressive array of new tools that are both powerful and easy to use. The .Net platform allows developers to work in any of 20 current programming languages, including APL, Cobol, C++, Perl, Smalltalk and even Java, the Internet programming language from Sun Microsystems, which Microsoft's C# is intended to supplant.
Microsoft also employs an alphabet soup of industry-standard protocols XML, SOAP, WSDL and UDDI for describing, identifying and communicating data over the Web. The company has cooperated with its rivals to reach agreement on these formats and others with the World Wide Web Consortium and other groups concerned with industry standards.
But while Microsoft's software can freely exchange data across the Internet, the Web services applications built on its .Net platform are made to be installed only on machines using Microsoft's Windows.
In contrast, most of Microsoft's rivals I.B.M., Sun, BEA Systems (news/quote) and others use an industry-standard version of Java, J2EE, as the foundation of their development platform. Web services built with the Java-based tools run on all kinds of hardware and operating systems, not just Windows.
"For Microsoft, the Internet is still a Windows world," said Scott Hebner, director of marketing for I.B.M.'s WebSphere software group. "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
The Web services competition will not necessarily have antitrust implications. Most of the rivalry will center on software for big data-serving computers that companies will use to handle Web services applications. Windows has a strong and growing position in server software, but it is not dominant there as it is in personal computer desktop operating systems the market that was the focus of the federal antitrust case against the company.
But some competitors and some antitrust regulators worry that Microsoft's programming tools combined with its dominant positions in desktop operating systems and Web browsing software and its Passport online identification system threaten to let Microsoft gain an unfair advantage in Web services.
"Microsoft is going to operate a Web services network, not just the software tools to build applications," said Jonathan Schwartz, the chief strategy officer for Sun. "Its business model is to lock in corporate customers and consumers."
The potential threat to competition in Web services is one reason that the nine states that oppose the government's proposed settlement of the antitrust case are holding out for tougher sanctions against the company. In a court filing last Friday, the dissenting states declared, "Microsoft thus potentially has the power to create, control and exploit the only effective and widely inter operable Web services network."
Microsoft's lawyers and executives, and the software wizard behind the programming tools, scoff at such claims as wildly inaccurate and based on a flawed analogy with the PC industry. Web services will not be a winner-take-all market, unlike the PC operating system market, they say, and besides, Microsoft has learned some lessons in the last few years.
"I think you're seeing a different Microsoft," said Anders Hejlsberg, who served as chief architect of the C# language and helped guide the work on the other programming tools. "Look at the cooperative work we've done with World Wide Web Consortium and other standards bodies."
"It doesn't mean we're going to stop competing," Mr. Hejlsberg added, "but we're going to compete in a different way."