By Eric Knorr

During the mid- to late 1990s, when the technology bubble was fully inflated, we were told that the center of computing had shifted permanently from the desktop to the Internet. With Windows XP, Microsoft has chosen to take that pronouncement literally, capitalizing on every opportunity to push users to a Microsoft-approved Internet experience with Passport, instant messaging, MSN Explorer, teleconferencing, Internet telephony, and more. And remember that XP is only one part of the .NET master plan, which aspires to weave a fabric of software and services across the Internet with Microsoft Enterprise Servers and little Web services crafted with Microsoft tools proliferating.

The significance of Windows XP’s aggressive Internet integration goes beyond a single product or even a single company. All that loose talk in the ’90s about “computing on the Internet” was largely just that—talk. Now the rubber meets the road: When you fire up Windows XP and a Passport signup screen gets in your face, are you prepared to decide whether you want your identity locked in your hard disk or somewhere out there? By the same token, when faced with Microsoft pressure to switch to software by subscription, do you stick with software you actually own or become more dependent on a company outside the firewall?

These are big questions that ultimately transcend the fact that Microsoft is the one that is currently raising them or even whether you think Microsoft is out to rip you off. Microsoft, of course, was once the most desktop-centric company of all. IBM has sold minicomputer operating systems by subscription for years. Oracle tried and failed at computing by subscription with its Network Computer initiative. (Anybody remember the NC?) Soon, Sun’s Liberty Alliance will provide an alternative to the .NET My Services (formerly HailStorm) identity service. And scores of ASPs already rent software over the wire. It’s Microsoft’s Windows dominance that makes Windows XP and software by subscription together the biggest shove toward the Internet that the modern desktop has ever received.

By all indications, Microsoft customers haven’t enjoyed being pushed. Not only do people dislike the idea of personal authentication and profiling by Microsoft, but they also hate the whole idea of the Internet having that information, no matter how safe it might be or what convenience may result (never mind that their credit card company already knows more about them than any identity server ever will). And as much as it makes Microsoft customers mad that they’ll pay more by subscription for software, what rankles them even further is that they never own the product outright.

Well, get over it. Even if Microsoft isn’t the right company to drag desktop computing onto the Internet at last—and a spotty record with security along with a tendency to profiteer suggest that it may not be—don’t use ill feelings about Microsoft as an excuse to sit inside your firewall and sulk. Yes, security risks loom larger with greater Internet integration, and reliability perils increase when you depend on services. But over time, those risks can be minimized. And the rewards of Internetwide integration promised by .NET—and by the parallel schemes of Sun ONE and IBM Dynamic Services—point to a new era of distributed computing where identity servers make a personalized desktop of services available from any device and where B2B e-commerce actually starts to live up to the hype of drastically reducing wasted motion.

Windows XP is no more than a sign of things to come—a large step toward services and away from software. You may dislike the messenger but don’t ignore the message.

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