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.NET & Beyond: One more time: What exactly is .NET?

I know marketing people who think that creating confusion in the minds of customers is a good thing. “If they’re confused,” one of them told me, “they’ll need to come to us to get things cleared up.” Interesting reasoning, I suppose, but I don’t think it’s likely to be very successful. Your current customers might come in for a clarifying consultation, but don’t expect many new prospects to turn up. If I’m confused about what you’re offering, how do I know whether I want it or not?

None of the marketing people I know with this attitude work at Microsoft, but it can sometimes seem as if Microsoft’s marketers think this way, too. A case in point is .NET. The way in which .NET was initially explained was, well, a little confusing. And recent changes have left some believing that Microsoft’s technology strategies have changed or even that the company is de-emphasizing .NET -- and neither of these is true.

To see what’s truly happening, let’s go over the .NET story from the beginning. When Microsoft first announced .NET in the summer of 2000, it was presented as the firm’s overarching, long-term technology strategy. We were told that Microsoft was betting the company on .NET. This was entirely true, since Microsoft was calling pretty much everything .NET: the .NET Framework, Visual Studio .NET, the .NET Enterprise Servers, .NET My Services, Windows .NET Server and even a possible Office .NET sometime in the future.

But was there a common technical underpinning for all of these things? No. .NET was, in fact, an overarching branding strategy, not a technology strategy. And because there was essentially nothing technically in common across all of these .NET-branded products, the branding strategy wound up confusing people. The official line was that all .NET technologies had something to do with Web services, but this is about as meaningful as grouping technologies together because they all use TCP/IP. The categorization is so broad that it doesn’t provide any value.

Today, though, we’re seeing a much more sensible use of the label. To see why this is true, look at what’s happened to the various technologies that once bore the .NET brand:

* The .NET Enterprise Servers are now part of the Windows Server System and they have lost the .NET tag. This is a little ironic, since the upcoming releases of BizTalk Server and SQL Server will finally incorporate the .NET Framework. In other words, these products actually will support .NET technology just when they’ve lost the .NET brand. Still, making them part of the Windows family makes much more sense from a customer point of view.

* .NET My Services largely failed. I think this is unfortunate -- it contained some very interesting ideas -- but its demise has also helped to clarify what “.NET” really means.

* Windows .NET Server was re-christened Windows Server 2003. Even though it is the first version of Windows to ship with the .NET Framework built in, Microsoft chose to remove the .NET brand from the product shortly before it was released.

* The rumored Office .NET never appeared; instead, it was replaced by the more sensibly named Office 2003.

So what’s left under the .NET banner? Two big things: the .NET Framework and Visual Studio .NET, the main tool for building Framework-based applications. To many people, these developer-focused technologies were always the heart of .NET and, today, it’s become clear that they are .NET. Almost nothing else is left that bears this brand.

It’s wrong to think that Microsoft’s technology strategy has changed. Some parts of the .NET initiative didn’t succeed, such as .NET My Services, but most of the technologies have rolled out according to plan. The big change was in naming, where Microsoft pulled back from calling everything “.NET.” Unless you’re one of those marketing folks who thinks confusing customers is a good thing, this is unquestionably progress.

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 david@davidchappell.com.

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