At age 35, Eric Rudder has already had a full career. For four years, longer than anyone else has held the slot, Rudder served as Bill Gates's technology assistant, a position akin to chief-of-staff. Having survived that -- and demonstrated both his technical acumen and loyalty -- Rudder was rewarded with the confusing title of senior vice-president for developer and platform evangelism. Put more simply, he's in charge of Gates' latest "bet the company" initiative.
Primarily, that means making sure the software development community cottons to Redmond's massive .Net (pronounced dot-net) initiative, a package of software and tools that will let coders easily integrate the disparate systems within companies that until now have been difficult and expensive to mesh. That, in turn, will make it possible to move larger amounts of information around the Internet and across a wide variety of devices.
Equally important, Rudder has to make sure that Microsoft's squadrons of software engineers make .Net as pleasing as possible to a large lineup of potential corporate customers. At stake for Microsoft are both billions in future software revenues and a key role in building the architecture that will underlie much of the next-generation Internet.
"OUR MOON SHOT." Clearly, the pressure on Rudder is enormous. Gates likes to jest that the estimated $5 billion per year Microsoft is spending to develop .Net is "our moon shot," says Rudder. Gates never has revealed the true total cost, however. And, in fact, he might not know exactly, since .Net is so embedded in Microsoft's overall strategy. When asked how many people actually work on the project, Rudder jokingly replies by asking how many people work at the software king.
It's a fair answer, as Microsoft isn't alone in betting that the entire computing universe will one day depend on better sharing and use of information -- the basic idea behind both .Net and the nascent Web-services industry. ".Net is at the core of linking all these things.... Microsoft Office with Web services connected to an SQL [database] server using .Net software is much stronger than just Office alone," says Rudder.
To persuade the computing establishment to put so much trust -- and power -- in the hands of Microsoft will be a tall order. In fact, much of the software development world remains divided into pro- and anti-Microsoft camps.
WIDER EMBRACE. It's no surprise, then, that Rudder has championed the use of so-called open standards in .Net, including SOAP (simple object access protocol) and XML (extensible markup language). These standards serve as the syntax that lets different flavors of Web services from different companies easily communicate over the wires. "As we walked through the scenarios, it was clear we needed to encompass a large number of devices and work with a large number of partners," says Rudder.
This time around, Microsoft has shown a new sensitivity about stepping on people's toes. Redmond has already backed away from some of the seemingly more enveloping aspects of .Net, such as its vision of ubiquitous use of the so-called Passport Wallet to store data about Web users.
And Rudder concedes that security is a key concern of his coders as they push forward toward more intelligent uses of .Net, such as informing everyone due at a meeting via e-mail and pager that one of the participants is late because of a delayed flight.
So far, Rudder says, he's pleased with customer response. Citigroup is using .Net to create financial "dashboards" that people in its organization can use for everything from finding bond yields to getting breaking market news. And British retailer Marks & Spencer has used .Net to connect complicated antifraud software to transaction stations in department stores, making it easier to spot bogus credit cards. Those are two of the first steps on the very long journey the affable Rudder must travel to make .Net live up to its hype. By Alex Salkever, Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online