Exploring the Terminology Jungle

Microsoft's inability to create a coherent nomenclature for its technologies has become the stuff of legend. A friend of mine has even coined a useful new term, "Minfu," for this situation. It is derived from the phrase "Microsoft Naming Foul-Up."

The mother of all Minfus is the COM/OLE/ActiveX snarl. Because COM was first employed in creating OLE compound documents, Microsoft originally chose to apply the OLE label to many (but not quite all) COM-based technologies. This led a number of Microsoft's critics to wrongly assume that COM was somehow compound document-oriented, rather than the very generic technology it has proven to be. It also managed to bury a simple, broadly useful component technology in the midst of a very complex, very specialized scheme for combining diverse documents. The result? Confusion all around.

Then Microsoft got Internet religion. To demonstrate this, the company decided that OLE would once again refer only to compound documents, and that COM-based technologies would bear the new ActiveX label. Other new technologies were tagged with just the word "Active," suggesting some kind of techno-kinship and not much else. However, this made things worse. Many people had yet to grasp what the OLE label meant, and almost no one understood how ActiveX was used.

In fact, it is debatable whether Microsoft itself ever had a clear picture. During the heart of the ActiveX branding push from Redmond, I received a call from a man who compiles dictionaries of computer terms. Because I had written a book called Understanding ActiveX and OLE, he was hoping for the straight dope on what these terms really meant. When I suggested he contact Microsoft, he told me he had already done that. They told him to call me.

Somehow, relying on outsiders to provide authoritative definitions for terms you have defined does not strike me as the best approach. But when faced with a Minfu, it might be the only solution.

When the COM+ label first appeared, I was convinced it was another Minfu. Although it includes other things, the most important thing about COM+ is that it is the next release of the Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS) technology. MTS has been building market and mind share since its release several years ago. Yet in changing the technology's name, Microsoft effectively truncated this branding trajectory.

Even worse, the name change has sowed confusion that has been exploited by competitors. MTS is technically very similar to Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB), and since MTS shipped well before EJB was defined, it is hard to argue with the assertion that EJB borrows a good deal from Microsoft's innovations. However, Microsoft's competitors have managed to shift the comparison from MTS/EJB, where it should be, to COM+/EJB. This confers a huge advantage on the EJB forces, because COM+ was not available until the release of Windows 2000 this year. EJB, which is significantly less widely used and less mature than MTS, looked good in both of these areas against the just-released COM+. But compared to MTS, the correct competitor, EJB, was less attractive. Even the venerable GartnerGroup took this route at its Windows NT conference last year, choosing to pit EJB against COM+ rather than MTS. The point is that Minfus are not just cause for entertainment — they confuse customers and cost Microsoft sales.

Yet looking at the changes COM+ has wrought, I sympathize with Microsoft on this one. Originally, COM and MTS provided related services implemented in two distinct runtime libraries. This division made no real sense, and so Microsoft combined these two libraries in Windows 2000. MTS ceased to exist as a distinct technology, and its services are now provided by a souped-up version of the COM runtime library. Microsoft could not very well apply the MTS label to this new library because COM had been the foundation technology all along. COM+, while perhaps not a perfect name, was certainly a reasonable choice. This is not ActiveX redux.

Even if COM+ is not a Minfu, it certainly has been confusing. As someone who makes at least part of his living explaining the confusion Microsoft creates, this is perfectly fine with me. At the same time, however, I would not mind seeing fewer Minfus. Explaining how to use the technology is hard enough without also having to cut through a jungle of confusing terminology.

About the Author

David Chappell is principal at Chappell & Associates, an education and consulting firm focused on enterprise software technologies. He can be reached via E-mail at [email protected].