Friday, November 03, 2006

Microsoft and Novell Acrobatics with .NET

When I heard the news Microsoft inked a partnership with Novell, it had a certain surrealness about it. So much so that I half expected ignoring the news would somehow evaporate it by the end of the day. There just didn't seem to be enough depth to what should have been a shocking announcement. The best people could muster was 'former rivals.'

I see that C|Net is struggling with an adequate take as well. Is Microsoft pre-empting a fractured Oracle/Red Hat Anti-Alliance? Please. Microsoft hasn't been worried about Oracle for... ever. I think we can dismiss that one. Red Hat's revenues are a rounding error of an MS division. I'm not even seeing two sticks of wood, let alone smoke with that one.

It's got to be in the patents. So the question is why Novell and Suse? What makes it different from the other linux distros? The netware bogeyman has been beaten so thoroughly its barely even a rumor.

I think Microsoft has caught Mono.

A Little COMmiseration

When I started cutting my chops on programming, OLE, COM and Automation were the Next Big Thing. So I duitifully bought books, bravely fiddled with IDL and generally scratched my head at how unintelligible the Next Big Thing turned out to be. After a string of late night sessions trying to make object embedding work across applications for a customer, visions of Bill Gates in a flowing robe, and hat of moon and stars, sucking the aggregate programming energy of any potential competitor would flit across my bleary vision. Up until then I had never actually seen a hammer turned into a screwdriver. It's no wonder Java appeared on the scene.

But this isn't a comparison of programming models as much as admiration for how Microsoft has the ability, albeit when nudged, to right the ship and produce something great. Say what you want about Windows, Office, SQL Server and any other product, the one area Microsoft has always excelled in is developer tools.

Microsoft was nudged by Java. That's the one thing you can thank Scott McNealy for. And the result was they hired one of the best, if not the best, programming language designers in the world. Not only did they hire the best, but they inspired them too. Maybe it was money, or maybe it was a free hand to build the languages they wanted. Whatever the root, the result is the best development environment, the best development language and maybe even the best runtime.

In fact they did a bang-up job, and then shared the .NET runtime specification.

About Face

Even though .NET has been out for several years now, the office applications have been conscipously .NET free zones. It's very understandble: legacy code making billions of dollars that no one wants to touch. But now comes the need to take business productivity to the Web 2.0 era. Ray Ozzie has an excellent vision for melding the desktop with the web. It's time for the Office apps to move to a better platform.

Except that the last thing MS wants to see is their Office apps running on .NET. Or more precisely, running on .NET on a platform they can't influence. Yes they have produced software for Apple. MS Office for Apple even generates a nice amount of revenue. But Microsoft gets to decide what MS Office for Apple is and how it runs. If MS moved Office en masse to .NET, and if there's a .NET framework that can run on Apple or any other NIX, then users would get the exact same office experience regardless of platform.

The Mono project sponsored by Novell does exactly this. This would have the unfortunate effect of reducing the value of the Vista investment and their Windows cash engine. The underlying tension is between moving productivity apps into the future versus maximizing brand and return on investment.

While Microsoft once may have dismissed Linux in particular and open source in general, they now hold them with high regard. The last thing Microsoft would want is to open another front in a battle to maintain control of the desktop. Though it might seem far-fetched to view Mono being as large a threat today as Linux was yesterday, Microsoft can not afford to be wrong.

So Microsoft and Novell get together and on the surface talk about patents. However, my guess is it has more to do with .NET and Mono and keeping a genie in a bottle.

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