Why Microsoft’s .NET Is .Not for Me

2002 – My students sometimes joke with me that if they don’t say they like Macs, I’ll ruin their grades. Of course, I wouldn’t ever make my computing preference a factor in a grade; other than the fact students must complete assignments on a computer, I’m not so narrow-minded (or unethical) as to do such a thing.

Still, sometimes they want to know why I like Macs so much – and why I don’t like PCs. That question, for me, goes beyond OS preferences and the design of the computer case. I think it goes back to the whole capitalistic notion of competition breeds strength. Diversity makes us stronger, not weaker. Sometimes I read things on the Web that remind me why I write for Low End Mac.

I wrote this after reading A .NET Primer for Mac Users by Charles Wiltgen. [Editor’s note: don’t even try to read this tiny-type HTML abomination using Netscape, iCab, or Opera – or do it just to see how badly a page optimized for Internet Explorer can look using a different browser.] Wiltgen, in turn, wrote his article in response to Microsoft’s .NET & the Advent of (More) Nuisance Technology, which was published on Mac Observer four months ago.

Wiltgen accuses Mac Observer of being ignorant of the operational characteristics of Microsoft’s .NET initiative and associated Passport registration scheme. He even goes so far as to forgo the customary link to the referring article to deny Mac Observer the hits that would result from people attempting to see if there was any substance to his allegations.

It turns out that the article was written by Rodney O. Lain. Now Rodney is many things – inflammatory occasionally and perhaps focused on issues of race – but one thing Rodney is not is a careless writer. So I decided to read up a bit.

Rodney’s article is mainly about the implication that Hailstorm (a name recently abandoned by Microsoft) will cause users to become even more self-centered and wrapped up in their own data in public places – while driving a car, for example. This is what Rodney has to say about Hailstorm, which you should know is referred to as .NET by Microsoft today.

You are probably aware of Microsoft’s latest software initiative called “Hailstorm,” the most recent ploy to put flesh to its 1990s mantra “Windows everywhere.” But Hailstorm goes beyond Windows, though. The Cliff Notes version of the Hailstorm plan is this: By leveraging several Microsoft technologies, the company dreams a world in which all of your personal information (credit card numbers, e-mail, computer passwords, financial info) is stored on Microsoft servers. The promise of Hailstorm is that you would be able to access that server information from any computing device from anywhere in world, be it a desktop computer at home, a handheld Personal Digital Assistant, a desktop computer at school or the office, a kiosk in a shopping mall, or a laptop in the airport.*

Now that’s all Rodney has to say about .NET’s functionality. The rest is a commentary on our self-absorption in our own data in public places.

So I read Wiltgen’s article, which seems like a fairly focused discussion on certain aspects of the .NET initiative. I decided to read more on my own, so I went to Microsoft’s .NET site, where I found this little gem:

At its core, Microsoft .NET is about making technology work for people, instead of forcing individuals to adapt to the limitations of their computers

The phrase above is partially cut off when surfing with Netscape. In case you’re interested, the entire phrase is: “At its core, Microsoft .NET is about making technology work for people, instead of forcing individuals to adapt to the (now here is where you have to manually scroll over to the right) limitations of their computers.” Huh.

Anyway, so what does Microsoft say .NET is? This is from Microsoft’s .NET website:

Microsoft® .NET is the Microsoft platform for XML Web services. XML, an industry standard data format, is the “lingua franca” that enables data-sharing among disparate applications and devices.

That doesn’t seem all that different from what Rodney said. Unfortunately, Charles doesn’t explain exactly what it is that Rodney doesn’t understand. After reading back and forth between Charles’ and Bill’s websites (Bill Gates, that is) I figured out that .NET is really a virtual computing platform system (including data structures, virtual computers, data transmission formats, communication protocols, and Borg implant interfaces), meaning it is a competitor for Java.

It’s like this: In HTML, which is what Web pages are written in, there are hidden codes that describe the content following the code, until you turn it off. So <BOLD> turns bold on and </BOLD> turns bold off. In HTML, everyone agrees (sort of) on what these terms are and what they mean. There’s a fixed set of commands (theoretically) that everyone can use.

In XML, you can define your own tags or information types, such as first name, address, social security number, credit card account number, name of your firstborn child, your arrest record, credit rating, Passport ID….

.NET is an initiative to standardize these customized tags so everything is consistent. Like HTML, then, everyone in the Microsoft universe will know what tags stand for what. First name is always “firstname” and never “fname,” for example.

C# (C-sharp) is a virtual computer that can manipulate the .NET version of XML code that has user information in it. It can calculate things, request information, and so on.

The deal is this: When Sun sued Microsoft (in nineteen hundred and ninety-seven) for altering Java and making it Microsoft-specific, thus destroying the entire “write once, run everywhere” paradigm that is the Java Virtual Computer, Microsoft saw the writing on the wall. A crash development program begat .NET as a competitor for Java.

The point is that Microsoft owns .NET . . . and C#. No one owns XML; it’s a standard. Other companies can use XML tags and write programs to interpret them and interface with the outside world, but Microsoft wants you to use their standard.

Passport, which you may have heard of, is like a keychain password for all the data in all the standard XML tags that Microsoft wants to implement with .NET.

Now that you understand the background, let’s move on to the main issue.

There’s something going on here that Rodney hinted at (though that wasn’t the purpose of his article) and Charles avoided completely (because he isn’t concerned about it, apparently). The problem – and stop me if I’m being too obtuse here – is simply this:

Microsoft is an illegal monopoly, and I don’t trust them with my data.

I wish Charles had addressed this point, but he didn’t.

Now I don’t think Microsoft is going to steal from me – not directly, anyway.

That a big corporation would take money from people with nothing of value behind the transaction is about as likely as having to post guards to prevent shredding documents proving that you sucked up your own employees’ money faster than Passport can verify you credit card number.

The problem is that I don’t trust Microsoft to provide the services they are advertising for competitor’s websites. I don’t trust Microsoft to keep my data private without selling it to every telemarketer on three continents. I don’t trust Microsoft to provide a competitive fee to companies I like so they can stay in business (or did you think receiving money through .NET was going to be free?).

I don’t trust Microsoft to allow companies I like, making software I like, to stay in business. Apple’s still strong and still fighting, but it still has to work harder than the rest of the industry just to be tolerated. Netscape is all but crushed; it’s early advantages passed over by IE in the long night of lawsuits. Netscape may win their new court battle, but they’ll lose the war if they don’t fundamentally improve their product. Sun’s engineers are not sleeping well at night. Bungie – what can I say about Bungie? It still exists. They still write games. They found a good home for Myth. My heart still aches, though. [Microsoft acquired Bungie in 2000 so it could make Halo: Combat Evolved its “killer application” for Microsoft’s forthcoming Xbox console.]

One day when I was talking to my wife about an article I wrote, she said, “Why do you insist on using a Mac so much? Why not just go with the flow?” Then I had a long talk with her about GUIs and Java and Netscape and dead people writing letters to the Justice Department and inter-department memos urging employees to vote against Java and the Justice Department and priorities in the Bush administration since Sept. 11.

“Why, they’re . . . they’re evil, aren’t they. How do they live with that? How can they work like that?” she said.

Borg cube“Just like the Borg,” I said, “they’re on a mission to persuade the rest of us, one way or another.” I wasn’t kidding, either.

Can you imagine using Passport to order up a flat-panel iMac, for example? Me neither. What about a Sun server? A Linux box? A Low End Mac tote bag?

I envision a day when using Passport is so embedded in Web transactions that it’ll be difficult to purchase that one thing you have to have any other way. Or rather, that’s what Bill envisions. Me, I’m just a lowly Mac user who doesn’t really understand .NET.

Once, when I was very tired, working very late, and very poor, I stopped by a hospital at 3 a.m. to pay a bill. My wife said, “Do you think they’ll accept a check at 3 a.m.?” to which I replied, “It’s a hospital. Hospitals will always take your money.” Which, of course, they did.

You can’t explain all this to a student in the five minute break between classes. You can, however, say this: “Like a hospital, Microsoft will always take your money. The problem is, I don’t always want to give it to them.”

* In 2016, Microsoft is busy converting Skype from being primarily a peer-to-peer service into a server-based one.

Short link: http://goo.gl/e9gMjc