TechnologyWhat on earth is? – .Net

What on earth is? - .Net

Microsoft is making a big fuss these days over a new technology called .Net. Ask anyone at Microsoft what .Net actually is, though, and you'll probably just get an earful of marketing waffle, including words such as 'integrated user experience', 'interoperability' and 'open standards'.

The reason is that .NET isn’t a technology at all but rather a general term that covers a wide range of services that will eventually be available over the internet.

A key concept behind .NET is the idea of ‘exposing’ information online. You store such details as your name, address and credit card number on a central website and then specify who else that information can be ‘exposed’ to.

Microsoft’s Passport system, at www.microsoft.com/passport, is one of the first practical examples of .Net. When you sign up for Passport, your personal details are stored on the Passport site. Other sites can then carry a Passport button. When you decide to buy something, you click the Passport button which tells it to release your address and credit card details to authorise the purchase.

This process works both ways, so other people can choose to expose their information to you as well. Friends and family members, for example, can share their personal calendars to keep track of one another’s movements, and your bank’s computer system could ‘expose’ a quick warning to tell you you’re about to go overdrawn.

However, .NET doesn’t just work with computers. Just about any device that can connect to the internet can work with it, including mobile phones, PDAs and even Microsoft’s Xbox games console. Imagine you’re in the middle of a game of Quake and you suddenly get a message from your bank about your balance – this can either be incredibly useful or incredibly intrusive. Either way, Microsoft is promoting .Net so heavily that we’ll find out soon enough.

THE SCIENCE

The term .Net may just be Microsoft marketing-speak, but it is based on an important new technology called XML – eXtensible Mark-up Language.

At the moment, the pages of ordinary websites are created using a programming language called HTML – HyperText Mark-up Language. This language consists of a series of codes called tags, which determine how text, graphics and other elements are displayed on the web page. However, there is only a limited number of tags available within HTML, so there’s a limit to what programmers/designers can do when creating web pages.

XML is more sophisticated than HTML as it allows designers and programmers to create tags that can do pretty much whatever you want them to, hence the term ‘extensible’.

The advantage of using XML is that web designers and developers are no longer constrained by the limited range of tags within HTML. The disadvantage is that XML is a lot more complicated than HTML and you need to have a good grasp of programming to use it properly.

THE BASICS

The whole point of .Net services such as Passport is that they allow you to customise the information provided by the service to meet your specific needs. You can choose exactly what personal information you release to other people and what sort of information you receive from others.

Another .Net service already in use is Microsoft’s Alerts system (www/alerts.microsoft.com). This allows you to receive email ‘alerts’ from various news sources or online stores. You can tell these companies to automatically provide information, such as sports scores for a particular team, or tell you when a new product is in stock. In the future, you may also be able to receive alerts from people such as your dentist, reminding you when it’s time for a check-up.

This raises all sorts of concerns about security and privacy but Microsoft claims that all .Net services are ‘opt-in’ systems. In other words, you’re never forced to reveal any information you want to keep private, and companies that provide services such as ‘alerts’ are only allowed to send you information you’ve asked for specifically.

WHY YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT IT

You may already be using .Net services without knowing it. You need to register as a Passport user in order to play some of the online games on Microsoft’s Gaming Zone, and companies such as Electronics Boutique, Godiva and Victoria’s Secret all use Passport as the ordering mechanism in their online shops. So if you bought frilly undies or chocolates online for Valentine’s Day, you might have found yourself using .Net.

Even if .Net doesn’t take off, this type of information-sharing service looks certain to be an important part of the internet in the future. At the moment, there are many different types of device that are capable of connecting to the internet, such as computers, phones and PDAs. However, it’s not easy to share information between these different devices. Systems such as .Net will allow you to receive personalised information on any type of device, anywhere in the world.

JARGON BUSTER

PDA: Personal Digital Assistant. A palmtop computer about the size of a pocket calculator. Usually without a keyboard and with a touch-sensitive screen, it will use text recognition for data entry. Most PDAs are supplied with diary and memo software.

Tag: Part of the syntax of HTML, the language used to define web pages, tags assign attributes – such as colour and position – to each of the elements of a web page.

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