Microsoft has unveiled the long-awaited details of a plan to provide software and services that reach far beyond the PC and make possible new types of Web-based services and computing.
Called Microsoft .Net, the multi-year effort will lead to the creation of a more "intelligent network" in which all kinds of devices can interact with each other and in which information on the Internet can be harnessed and presented to users more efficiently and effectively, said Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect.
"We have the opportunity to take this vision of a digital world and apply the magic of software to make it a reality," Gates said. "But it's not like the past where there will be a single device that defines all of this. There will be many different devices."
The Internet has progressed rapidly, but it is still comprised largely of static content accessed through computer screens, Gates said. Using technologies like XML (extensible markup language) and new Microsoft software to be rolled out in the coming years, Microsoft .Net will offer a new platform in which Internet content can be used more productively and efficiently, Gates said.
Microsoft .Net replaces the previous name for the initiative, Next Generation Windows Services.
Microsoft will need to pull its vision together against the backdrop of its ongoing antitrust appeal and against the US government's continuing efforts to see the company broken into two separate entities. Federal regulators will scrutinize Microsoft's every move to ensure the company doesn't use the dominance of its Windows operating system to create a new monopoly based around its efforts on the Web.
Seemingly in defiance of that scrutiny, Gates said the company will attempt to do on the Internet more or less exactly what it did with the PC - provide a unified and ubiquitous platform on which developers and businesses can deploy new applications and services.
"There's a very strong analogy here between what were doing now and what we did with Windows," Gates said.
While any device equipped with a browser will be able to access Internet services made possible by Microsoft .Net, Gates said, the user experience will be "far richer if you use a device that has the .Net code down on it."
The remark cuts to the heart of one of the chief criticisms made against Microsoft -- that it develops software that works better with its own products than with those of competitors, analysts here said.
Starting next year, Microsoft will offer new versions of the Windows operating system, Microsoft Office, Windows DNA servers, its Visual Studio development tools, and other products that will support elements of the .Net platform. Central to the effort will be the tight integration of XML in all of Microsoft's software.
XML will provide a way to catalogue information on the Internet, allowing intelligent agents to troll the Net and precisely gather information that is relevant to the task a user is performing, Gates said.
"XML is the base protocol for everything," he said. "It is the thing that will be exchanged between sites and between servers and between clients to enable this new era. The platform itself has to embrace XML is a very deep way."
The user interface will also evolve to include speech and handwriting recognition, Gates said, describing the effort as a "bet-the-company thing."
"Our whole strategy is defined around this platform," he said.