The Bermuda Triangle, alien cattle mutilation, the lost city of Atlantis, and Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT) .NET platform are mysteries that have left the world dumbfounded. The first three have stood the test of time, bewildering our most respected scholars on the unexplained, including Robert Stack and David Duchovny.

Today, we'll examine the .NET (pronounced "dot-net") phenomenon. When it was unveiled last summer, even Microsoft had difficulty explaining the .NET vision. Part of the problem is that .NET means different things to different people. For most of us, it's access to software over the Internet, but for developers, it's a set of services to build applications.

Microsoft owned the programming standards for the client/server and PC markets during the '90s, forcing developers to write compatible software. The Internet's explosion, however, diminished Microsoft's stranglehold on programming standards, and developers began writing software using new standards, such as HTML, Java, and XML. In addition to the Internet, the growing popularity of non-PC devices has challenged Microsoft's dominance, as the demand for accessing information from new devices -- including mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), tablet computers, and TVs -- has exploded.

The Microsoft solution to these dilemmas: the .NET platform, which makes applications available anywhere, anytime, on any device.

The .NET platform signifies a business-model shift away from up-front-purchase software licenses to a subscription-revenue model, which provides a more predictable and annuity-like stream of income. Because most computers do not come with Microsoft Office preloaded, for example, consumers could rent it for a flat fee and gain additional services, such as Internet access and technical support.

The Extensible Markup Language (XML) is the secret sauce of the .NET platform, enabling software to be shared across different platforms. Simply put, XML is a way to create common information and share the data over the Internet. This type of information sharing, according to Microsoft, enables constellations of computers, devices, and services to work together. By doing so, people and businesses have more control over how and what information is delivered.  

The success of .NET depends on Microsoft's ability to convince its desktop customers to subscribe to software and services over the Internet. Microsoft dominates the desktop with millions of Windows and Office users. There is no other company that has more mindshare with consumers. A 1998 report by ORC International stated that 97% of U.S. consumers knew of Microsoft. With .NET designed to enrich the end-user experience, driving consumer adoption shouldn't be difficult.

It's also critical that Microsoft persuades developers to use its Web services through the .NET platform. These services are applications that are served over the Internet, using common programming standards (such as XML) that enable developers to build software. A company could build an e-commerce site, for example, using different Web services -- such as security, Web-page creation, and credit card processing -- that are located in different places.

Last week, for example, Microsoft and eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) announced a partnership indicating the growing adoption of the .NET platform. According to eBay, using .NET will open its platform to roughly 4 million developers. In a joint conference call with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, eBay CEO Meg Whitman provided an example: "If you run a content site for motorcycles, you could import all the eBay motorcycle auctions onto your site, so eBay would be the commerce engine for the site." 

Microsoft also recently purchased the leading mid-market vendor of enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, Great Plains (Nasdaq: GPSI). The acquisition of Great Plains and recent partnerships with customer relationship management (CRM) software vendors Onyx (Nasdaq: ONXS) and Pivotal (Nasdaq: PVTL) represent Microsoft's efforts to sell small- and mid-sized businesses on the .NET platform. With few software solutions targeting those markets, the added revenue possibilities are significant.

But the .NET platform does pose some unanswered questions. While Microsoft will deliver software over the Internet, it must also ensure the reliability and security of those applications. Also, if consumers are allowed to access applications from any device, will those devices have to be .NET compliant? Also, could the company be putting all its eggs in one basket with XML? A new and more innovative standard could come along.

Still, .NET seems to offer some promising innovations. Imagine writing a Word document on a PC and making a last-minute change on a PDA during your commute home. Better yet, imagine making an airline reservation over the Internet, having it automatically put in your calendar, and sending an instant message to your sister (who's picking you up) when your flight is delayed. Theoretically, .NET will make all of this happen.

In the world of software, where the rapid pace of technological change can make today's winner tomorrow's loser, Microsoft has attacked new markets, from desktop operating systems and applications to cable television and Web appliances. Now, Microsoft is pinning its future on .NET. Despite the overwhelming possibilities, it's important to remember much of what .NET promises is several years away from full functionality.

Here in Makerville, we'll continue learning about the .NET platform and what it means for Microsoft's future.

Mike Trigg is all about March Madness and the Sweet-16-bound Kansas Jayhawks. His holdings can be viewed in his personal profile. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.