Microsoft's future is all about integrating software and services through the Internet.

The software giant yesterday unveiled its Microsoft.Net platform - a vision for future software and services previously referred to as Next Generation Windows Services, or NGWS.

Microsoft.Net consists of an Internet-based programming infrastructure as well as a user environment and services that support multiple devices - all built around the new extensible markup language (XML).

It includes server and client software, as well as services that will be built around familiar faces like Windows, Office, and MSN and that will be linked by the Internet.

Neither a new operating system nor a new software suite, Microsoft .Net will rely on XML and a series of building blocks that Microsoft will host and sell as subscription services.

Microsoft considers this announcement as significant as the launch of Windows and the graphical user interface.

"It's a platform for the next-generation Internet," said Bill Gates, Microsoft chair and chief software architect. "What we've been working on is how you take software and enable it across many devices. The Internet is the starting point."

Microsoft.Net includes protocols and services for PCs, Web tablets, cell phones, personal digital assistants, and smart phones. Servers at application service providers or inside corporations will provide the services across the Internet that support these devices.

Microsoft will blend Internet and communication tools such as instant messaging and e-mail with productivity tools such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Hypothetically, an XML-based universal canvas will let you work with data across applications and Web sites within a single view.

Of course, a lot of the Microsoft .Net platform depends on device and network evolution. Microsoft is developing Microsoft.Net with high-speed third-generation wireless networks (3G), as well as new devices like Web tablets, Web TV, Pocket PC, and smart phones in mind. Beyond multiple devices, you'll have multiple means of input, such as speech and handwriting recognition.

Small businesses will be able to take advantage of the BCentral component of the Microsoft.Net platform. Bcentral is a portal for small firms, due to be launched in the UK in November.

Provided you host your site on BCentral, you can access your tasks, e-mail leads, and other information from multiple devices. On the desktop, Outlook Web services delivered through Digital Dashboard can integrate Web and Office applications with your company information.