In last week’s .Net announcement, Bill Gates gleefully unveiled plans to marry the next generation of Windows not only to Office but to the company's MSN Net services: the Passport personal-information scheme, Hotmail, MSN Messenger, MSN Communities, and even the company’s small business portal BCentral.

It would seem that Gates is now touting even Microsoft's small-business Web site as an integral part of the next Microsoft platform.

And while the grand Gates unification scheme is built on Extensible Markup Language, that does little to establish a level playing field for all.

XML is the DNA of the next-generation Web, a hideously complicated and rapidly evolving architecture that's probably understood fully by fewer people than understand the human genome project. XML is fertile ground for mixing industry standards with proprietary extensions - and leveraging that to its advantage is the one art in which Microsoft is absolute master.

In short, there's nothing here to convince anyone - including Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who just issued a staying order for his remedies - that Microsoft intends to play nicer from now on.

Of course, the company will get much more serious competition than it has seen in recent years. Microsoft is not at all early to this software-becomes-Net-services party. The whole computer industry - including big guns like HP, IBM, and Oracle, plus a host of hyper-aggressive startups - is marching this way. The onslaught of new devices that don't run Windows gives all other vendors a lot more marching room.

The products and services that most of us will see, such as the next version of Office, are mostly two years or more away. That's a long time from now - even longer than it will take the Supreme Court to decide whether there will be a .Net (which could come only from a unified Microsoft) or not.