A new technology platform developed by Microsoft Corp. will simplify and enhance school computing, educational software developers insist, despite criticism from Microsoft rivals and some consumer advocates that the technology is aimed at extending the company’s software monopoly.

The new technology, called Microsoft .NET (dot-net), is an underlying architecture designed to allow a more personalized, seamless, web-enabled computing experience for the user. Several developers of educational software, such as Chancery, Blackboard, and GVOX, have built dot-net technology into the next generation of their software applications.

When teachers or school administrators currently use software, they often operate a word processor, eMail, instant messaging, a grade book, and an internet browser at the same time. The programs work independently from each another, and frequently the user has to switch between programs.

Microsoft’s dot-net technology aims to change that.

“Instead of five different applications working together, it’s one system working together,” said Roberto Bamberger, manager of learning solutions for Microsoft’s education group. “As far as the user is concerned, it’s one simple process.”

Dot-net technology—which is built on XML, or extensible markup language, a common architecture of the web that allows disparate systems to “speak” the same language—will save users from having to cut and paste data from one application to another, Bamberger said. This means no more switching between programs.

“It removes the burden from the user—whether [the user is] a parent, teacher, student, or administrator—from having to know ‘well, I take [information] from here and put it there,'” he said.

Among its capabilities, dot-net technology integrates different software programs with similar functions together. “What we’re talking about is the ability to stream together different programs without creating one monstrous application,” Bamberger said.

The end goal is to streamline the user’s experience.

“When you’re using a particular tool like Outlook, which is a communications and collaboration tool, you’ll be able to integrate in another collaboration tool like instant messaging,” Bamberger said. “None of us ever sit down at a computer to use just one product; you want to get something done. We want to reduce that friction.”

Dot-net enables functionality that never existed before, Bamberger said. For example, if a teacher researches lesson plans on the internet, he or she could perform a search and send an eMail containing the results to someone without switching software programs. “It takes out a few steps, which hopefully frees up some time,” he said.

Chancery uses dot-net technology to integrate a student database with both eMail and the internet to enhance the functionality of its next generation of student information systems.

Before dot-net, a school administrator had to request custom reports to identify problem areas. Now, when an event occurs in the student information database, Chancery’s software will send a message to notify the administrator, parent, or teacher instantly.

“Under the hood, what you have is integration of the messaging component and the database,” said Lee Wilson, vice president of marketing for Chancery’s student information systems.

For example, if parents are concerned about their children’s attendance, they can customize Chancery’s student information system to notify them by eMail when their children miss more than three classes in a week. The parents could receive this eMail notification on a cell phone, pager, personal digital assistant, or computer.

“Most people won’t know that this is a dot-net technology, but what they will know is this is a much better student information system than what they could have bought last year,” Bamberger said.

By using an openly defined platform such as dot-net, Chancery and other software developers can integrate blocks of functionality that fall outside their area of expertise, such as a calendar function.

“It allows us to focus our attention on what we know best, like scheduling and attendance,” Wilson said.

Blackboard Inc. is building Version 6 of its web-based learning platform using dot-net technology. Michael Stanton, a Blackboard spokesman, said this will allow the company to integrate a wider array of academic resources in a learning environment tailored to students’ individual needs and preferences.

“One of the hallmarks of Blackboard’s software is ease of use, and if it’s integrated with other products, it’s going to be so much easier for teachers, professors, administrators, everybody [to use],” Stanton said.

GVOX Inc., which provides web-based musical tools at its NotationStation.net web site, uses a small part of the dot-net platform to deliver its software to the user reliably.

“What changes is our ability to deliver software in a much quicker, superior fashion,” said Emanuel Mozes, director of information systems for the company.

“At one point we had NotationStation running on one server. But if we had to make changes, we had to shut the whole system down. With dot-net, we don’t have to do that,” Mozes said. “We could add five servers in one day without affecting the user. We could add new modules without affecting the user.”

Monopoly and compatibility issues

Microsoft is positioning its entire line of products and developments around dot-net technology.

Microsoft servers—such as the Windows 2000 Datacenter Server and Exchange 2000 Server—are dot-net enabled. Microsoft just released a beta version of Visual Studio, which is used for programming with dot-net. The company’s Office XP and its Windows XP operating system, which is scheduled for release this fall, also are dot-net enabled.

In fact, dot-net is the cornerstone of a strategy that critics say aims to extend the company’s dominance in the operating systems market to other software systems and services, including internet-based subscription services.

Windows XP uses dot-net technology to knit together Microsoft versions of many utilities that currently are stand-alone products made by competitors, including a program for storing digital photos, an expanded music and video player, and an instant messaging system.

The features are designed to pave the way for subscription-based internet services that Microsoft plans to launch soon, an initiative the company reportedly has dubbed Hailstorm.

State attorneys general worried about the potential market impact of Windows XP and Microsoft’s planned subscription services are discussing whether to file another antitrust lawsuit against the software giant, and the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled hearings for September on Microsoft’s business practices.

Meanwhile, a new federal judge was named Aug. 24 to decide how Microsoft should be punished for violating antitrust laws by bundling its Internet Explorer web browser with its Windows operating systems.

U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, a Clinton appointee with a reputation as a meticulous jurist, was selected to replace Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who had ordered Microsoft to be split into two separate companies. Kollar-Kotelly must decide whether to break up Microsoft or impose another penalty.

There’s also the issue of compatibility. Microsoft is not the only company to develop an underlying technology architecture that aims to facilitate a more personalized, integrated computing experience for users. Microsoft rival Sun Microsystems, for instance, has been building its own web services architecture, called SunONE, which stands for Sun Open Net Environment.

SunONE is based on Sun’s Java, a popular programming language that lets developers write software applications that can run on a variety of computers, regardless of the underlying operating system.

“Java is an integral part of SunONE,” said Doron Aronson, education public relations manager for Sun Microsystems. But Microsoft’s dot-net technology does not support Java. (Microsoft announced in July that it was excluding support for Java from its Windows XP and all future systems so it wouldn’t violate a legal settlement with Sun. Sun had sued Microsoft three years ago, alleging the company violated the terms of an agreement signed in 1996 by creating a Windows-only version of Java that was incompatible with other operating systems.)

Java directly competes with Microsoft’s dot-net, but it’s not as broad in scope, according to Chancery’s Wilson. Because different platforms exist, software developers like Chancery are careful to build their software to be compatible with various technologies.

Blackboard officials agree. “We maintain relationships with Oracle and Sun. This isn’t an exclusive relationship with Microsoft, but it is a preferred relationship,” Stanton said. “I don’t want to diminish any of those other relationships.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Links:

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Microsoft .NET
http://www.microsoft.com/net

Chancery Software Ltd.
http://www.chancery.com

Blackboard Inc.
http://www.blackboard.com

GVOX Inc.
http://www.gvox.com

Sun Microsystems
http://www.sun.com