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 other, 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.

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.

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. Compatibility issues?

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. This raises the issue of compatibility.

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. 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 operating system 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.

Though Java competes directly with Microsoft’s dot-net, it’s not as broad in scope, according to Chancery’s Wilson. Because different platforms exist, however, developers like Chancery and Blackboard say they are taking steps to build their software so it is compatible with various technologies.

Links:

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