The Network is the User Experience: Microsoft's .NET Announcement

by Jakob Nielsen on June 25, 2000

Brilliant strategic move against the Justice Department. Many people have said that the Justice Department was fighting the last war in their focus on the browser wars. Now that the Justice Department has won, Microsoft goes one step further and declares that the proposed penalty (forcing Microsoft to give up Windows) was the last war as well.

Operating systems are history as the nexus to coordinate users' interactions with their computers. Sure, each device will continue to run some kind of OS (maybe Windows, maybe Linux, maybe PalmOS, maybe some new thing), but the main user interactions will be mediated by network services and not by the OS. The Network is the User Experience.

Of course, Microsoft is not going to publicly proclaim that they have abandoned Windows: they expect to make billions as companies upgrade to Windows 2000. The strategy is to stall for time in the law suit and milk the OS as much as possible while preparing for the day of divestiture.

The New Nexus

Since the late 1980s, hypertext theory has predicted the emergence of a navigation layer that would be the nexus of the user experience. Traditionally, we assumed that this would happen by integrating the browser with the operating system to create a unified interface for manipulating remote information and local files. It has always been silly to have some stuff treated specially because it happened to come in over a certain network. Browsers must die as independent applications.

It is counter-productive to have users suffer sub-standard user interfaces for applications that happen to run across the Internet as opposed to the local client-server environment. Application functionality requires more UI than document browsing: another reason browsers must die.

The new coordinating layer will manage users' access to information objects and functionality objects across multiple devices. In the old days of local software, we used to complain about the stupidity of having separate spelling checkers for each application. The goal was OpenDoc-like integration where a single service could apply to multiple data objects. Over the Internet, this works even better:

  • the dictionary used in the spelling checker can be instantly updated as new words emerge
  • users can license rights to domain-specific dictionaries or slang-specific dictionaries as needed

Microsoft may hope to supply the biggest of these network services, but there will be plenty of room for other companies to sell services as well, once a single standard infrastructure has been built. Maybe people will subscribe to English-language spelling services from Microsoft, but dentists will get their specialized spelling checks from a company that specializes in Internet services for dentists. Similarly with spelling services for smaller languages: Microsoft will probably offer Japanese, French, and many other big languages, but they won't cover all the languages in the world. And even if Microsoft tries to offer, say, French spelling services, nobody says that they will win.

It will even be possible for several competing services to survive for each feature as long as they all follow the rules for data interchange and plug into the coordinating nexus.

The new nexus will coordinate:

  • traditional software services like spelling check
    • most of this software will be cached on your local device, so there will be no need to download several megabytes of code every time you need a feature
    • if the feature has been updated or if you have not used it before, it will simply appear
  • information storage to replace the file system with a more flexible object storage that works across multiple devices (no more "I forgot to bring that file" when you are off on a business trip)
  • the user interface, allowing each user's preferences to follow him or her around on the Internet
  • user identity and security: hopefully all data will be encrypted at all times, except when it is displayed on the user's screen
  • payment services (a nano-payment every time you get a French word spell checked, a micro-payment per page view, bigger charges when you buy physical stuff)
  • user guidance: subscribe to reputation managers to recommend products you see on other websites and warn against (or completely remove) misleading advertisements
  • guard the user's time and protects against too much email and other interruptions

This may sound like my 1996 Alertbox "The Internet Desktop" and my 1999 Alertbox "User-Supportive Internet Architecture." Fine with me: I am happy to get 40,000 Microsofties assigned to executing the vision.

What This Means for Websites

In the short term: nothing. The old software will still be out there, and because of the conservatism of Web users it will be several years before the majority of users upgrade to the new services, even after they ship in 2002.

Long term changes are profound. Websites will have to stop thinking of themselves as the center of the user's attention. Since the network is the user experience, individual sites will have to tone down their individual designs and aim at fitting in. More about this in the Alertbox for July 23, The End of Web Design.

Instead of having every single site supply a complete user experience, each site will supply a component of the overall user experience that is coordinated by the new nexus. This will lead to many opportunities for highly targeted narrow services. Microsoft may define the platform, but they cannot supply more than a tiny fraction of the necessary services.

All experience shows that once a standard platform is available, a thousand flowers will bloom. Start thinking now about what services you can provide once a fully-intertwined Web becomes a reality and replaces the point-to-point sites we see today.

Also plan for making your site benefit from closer integration with other services that are running on other sites. No more doing everything yourself.

Sites that attempt to own their own private mini-networks will come upon hard times :

  • Amazon 's attempt to be a shopping network will be doomed once users can perform zero-click shopping everywhere they go with privacy and security guaranteed by the new nexus services.
  • Yahoo 's attempt at a network of information services may not be doomed (since they are the most supremely well-designed minimalist services on the Web), but the relative importance of Yahoo will decline as it becomes easier to navigate to specialized services and to integrate them into a sustained user experience (and as it becomes easier for specialized services to collect payments).
  • Every website you visit can access as many of your customization preferences as you are willing to disclose; this will greatly diminish the value of special portal start pages (My.foobar).
  • AOL 's attempt to have a closed instant messaging system will be doomed since an integrated approach that works well with the other nexus services will win.

A new and easier way of constructing integrated services by combining multiple online sources may also be bad news for "e-business builders" like Andersen Consulting and IBM to the extent that they rely on skills at constructing monolithic systems.

Read More

  • Architecting micropayments to reside on the server is a play to make all Internet services employ Microsoft servers to get a sustainable business model (Alertbox sidebar, added May 2001)
  • Summary of the announcement (ZDNet coverage).
  • Official Microsoft .NET White Paper: weak document full of marketese and short on specifics and any real insight. Some errors as well (they refer to "multi-model" user interfaces when the correct term is "multi-modal").
  • Bill Gates' lecture on the new strategy. Much better: a more interesting read with more insightful analysis. The press has focused on the déjà vu feeling of Bill's talk in June 2000 sounding like Eric Schmidt's talks in 1994. That's OK, as far as I am concerned: Most Internet executives would learn more from rereading one of Eric's 1994 keynotes than they get from most of the neophytes who currently pass as "analysts."
    There is plenty of new stuff in Bill's talk, including the tidbit that Microsoft had eight different teams working on different aspects of the new strategy and that Bill himself chose to focus on chairing the user experience team. On the one hand I have never felt that Bill Gates was a great usability expert, but on the other hand you have to hand it to him that he understands that usability has become the driving force in the industry. Compare with Steve Jobs who is increasingly focused on surface aspects of appearance design.
  • Dave Winer's report from Microsoft's announcement: analysis by a software developer who is building his own products for more tightly intertwined Web services.

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