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Dot what?

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[Times photo: James Borchuck]
At Home Shopping Network, vice president of technology Stan Antonuk, left, and director of technology Gerry Johnson used .Net to speed up searches and downloads for consumers. “Our site is now running on one-tenth of the servers, the hardware, that it used to run on,” Antonuk says.

By DAVE GUSSOW
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 16, 2002


Bill Gates calls Microsoft's .Net a ''new computing revolution.'' Enthusiastic users say it works. But no one seems to be able to explain just what it is.

Two years ago, Microsoft boldly declared its vision of computing's future and called it .Net. Two years later, it's still trying to explain exactly what .Net is.

Yet at Home Shopping Network in St. Petersburg, executives say the technology means its Web pages download faster and searches are quicker.

For stock transactions at NexTrade.com in Clearwater, "We can get things to market a lot faster for our customers," said Mark Yegge, the company's chairman and chief executive.

Catalina Marketing in St. Petersburg is preparing to roll out applications that will give its customers more flexibility and control.

Tribridge Inc. in Tampa cut the time to develop some projects for its clients by months and used fewer staffers to handle them.

And millions of consumers store personal information in Microsoft's Passport ID system, allowing them to do online transactions more easily.

Yet people still don't understand what .Net is (not to mention how it's pronounced: dot-net).

"The message is still not resounding," said Andy Zupsic, general manager for the software giant's Gulf States district, who is based in Tampa. "We internally are trying to refine the message."

Part of the problem for Microsoft, Zupsic said, is that .Net is unlike anything the world's biggest software company has ever undertaken.

"It's not a product," Zupsic said. "It's not something you can touch. It's a framework" that eventually will allow people to get information "anywhere, any time, on any device."

The premise behind .Net, as outlined by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates two years ago, seemed to be as big as the company itself: Move Microsoft, its software and its services to the Web and make them available for everything from computers to cell phones to handheld organizers. Gates called it "a new computing revolution."

Consumers would have new ways to stay in touch and use the Web. Companies would have new tools to develop Web services and communications.

But the prospect of the Next Big Thing coming from Microsoft is anything but reassuring to critics, consumers and competitors who see the company as a bully that monopolizes the desktop with its flagship Windows operating system. Now, Microsoft would be the 800-pound gorilla developing the 21st century Web.

"There's a significant amount of distrust," said Mark Driver, a research director with Gartner Inc. "Microsoft has been labeled a predatory monopoly. They don't get the benefit of the doubt. Everyone assumes the worst-case scenario, and competition plays it up."

But Driver said Microsoft's biggest problem is that its message is confusing. "It's hard to sell something if you can't describe it," Driver said. "What we see in our polls is you either think it's too complicated, say 'I don't understand the benefits' or perceive it to be too early to make the shift."

In addition, Driver said, the company announced the project before it had products ready to go. It renamed some of its older products, such as Web development software, with the .Net label, further confusing customers.

Still, Driver said, at some point, "For the vast majority of Microsoft customers, we think it's an inevitable transition. It's a question of when, not if. Their only choice is to drop Microsoft technology, and that's unlikely to happen."

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* * *

Gerry Johnson and Stan Antonuk knew they were taking a chance by fiddling with Home Shopping Network's Web site just before last year's important holiday shopping season.

But faster searches would mean happier customers, and they wanted to give the .Net technology a try.

"It worked flawlessly," said Antonuk, the vice president of technology for the TV and online retailer. "The performance was incredible."

Since then, HSN has used the software to redo its entire site and found other benefits. For consumers, pages download faster. For the company, it saved a lot of money.

"Our site is now running on one-tenth of the servers, the hardware, that it used to run on," Antonuk said.

Johnson, the director of technology, said that allowed HSN to move hardware to other projects, saving money at a time when companies' purse strings are tight.

Among other things, the new technology lets developers create Web applications and services using a programming code called XML that allows information to be exchanged more easily and quickly from one format to another.

While HSN knows that .Net made the improvements possible, people who visit its site don't because it's a behind-the-scenes technology more important at this stage to businesses.

Microsoft is touting such success stories as it tries to build a case for .Net, which is beginning to show up at Tampa Bay area companies. Many have been Microsoft partners or rely on its software. Not surprisingly, they give .Net high marks.

"We were very comfortable that the product was virtually bug-free and could do the things" Microsoft promised, said Mike Herdegen, chief technology officer at Tribridge, a technology consulting and development company.

Tribridge chief executive Tony DiBenedetto said .Net allowed his company to complete projects faster and with fewer staffers than with older software. He said the applications Tribridge developed gave the businesses a complete system, from taking orders to checking inventory to filling orders.

DiBenedetto said .Net works with software beyond Microsoft's, particularly important for companies that may have thousands of customers using different technology. "You don't want to have issues" with compatibility, he said.

But some businesses are concerned that Microsoft will make .Net a platform that favors only Microsoft products, just as it tailored Windows to highlight and promote its own offerings and those of its allies. Although the company vows that won't happen, some .Net features work only on Microsoft-powered servers.

For companies such as NexTrade.com in Clearwater, a financial services company that matches buyers and sellers of stock, time really does mean money, and .Net helped it pick up the pace.

Yegge, the CEO, outlined a four-step process that happens when a customer places an order: NexTrade's software has to execute the order, update the customer's portfolio, update his order book and send a message that it has been carried out.

With its old system, each action had to be processed individually. "Things would lag, go back a second," Yegge said. "And that's a long time in stock trading." .Net handles all four actions simultaneously, he said, and is "unbelievably faster."

Even though Catalina Marketing has been affiliated with Microsoft for a while, chief technology officer Eric Williams said the company looked at competing products, such as IBM's WebSphere, before it chose .Net.

"If we were using it as a solution to address a true online Web site for customers to access for shopping services or the like, we may have made a different" decision, Williams said.

But it's developing a business-to-business system for clients, retailers and manufacturers to go to its Web site and design their own marketing messages.

The company hopes to replace a process that requires orders to be keyed into a system, printed, sent to the client for review and returned.

"Our user base is a couple of hundred, not thousands or hundreds of thousands," Williams said. "By the time our needs get to the tens of thousands in several years, .Net will be very established. We believe the timing of their evolution and the stability of their product will be far ahead of what we'll need."

* * *

.Net is the second time since 1995 that Microsoft has made the Internet the centerpiece of its corporate strategy. The first resulted in its development of the Internet Explorer browser, which elbowed aside pioneer Netscape.

This summer, Microsoft's Gates gave the company just a C grade for its .Net efforts so far.

But it's a necessary strategy, Gartner's Driver said, because the company was caught off guard, as it was in 1995, by the evolution of the Web and e-commerce. It couldn't support a Web-based world with technology centered on the PC.

Some of the early successes may not be what they appear, Driver said. Many Microsoft developers are using .Net for "nonmission-critical projects. They're getting their feet wet."

Consumers mostly know .Net through Microsoft's Passport ID system. They may have to wait at least two years before they see any .Net capabilities built into home PCs, the company says.

"Consumers will demand that kind of experience," Driver said. "Microsoft can't deliver without .Net."

But Microsoft has the clout, money and determination to make it work.

"We're trying to make .Net for whatever level of user you are," Microsoft's Zupsic said. "We should be able to provide that."

- Information from the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News and Times wires was used in this report. Dave Gussow can be reached at gussow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

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