The ebusiness world waits with baited breath for the Internet Engineering Task Force's (IETF's) decision on an XML standard, but the likely winners are boxing clever while some developments are already on the ropes.
The offering which has the IETF in the greatest lather is Soap (simple object access protocol) - a transport vessel being developed by Microsoft, IBM, SAP, Ariba and Compaq among others. It is one of 12 possible standards being examined by the IETF and the World Wide Web Consortium. A decision is unlikely to be reached in the short term.
Jon Collins, an analyst at Bloor Research, said there is "no reason why Soap shouldn't become the standard protocol for XML. There's a definite need for communication between ebusiness applications over the internet; it's incredibly important and Soap fills the gap."
Although Microsoft's version of the protocol transporter is the hot favourite, Collins said the Redmond giant has released very little information about its development.
"Microsoft seems to be balking at the principle of opening up a dialogue about this standard," he said. "There are several reasons why Microsoft does not want to reveal its hand at this stage. For a start, Soap is not ready - it is little more than a twinkle in the company's eye at this stage."
Collins believes that Microsoft would open itself to ridicule and tempt other companies to imitate its technology if it revealed everything about Soap.
"Imagine what would have happened if Sun had released details of Java to the IT industry before it was fully fleshed out. There would have been no shortage of companies prepared to copy and even patent their fledgling ideas," he said.
Through the Windows
The development of Soap technology aims to overcome many of the obstacles faced by ebusinesses that use competing and often incompatible internet applications and programming models. But Microsoft's development unsurprisingly attempts to steer ebusinesses in the direction of its Windows operating system.
Alternative offerings from IBM, Sun Microsystems, Oracle and others are based on proprietary Java or Corba (common object request broker architecture) models. Ultimately, Microsoft hopes that Soap will supersede a common communications format, allowing ebusinesses with different back-end systems to connect and exchange information based on the XML protocol transported by Soap, regardless of the technology they use.
However, Collins pointed out that Soap could be an instrumental part of Microsoft's Next Generation Windows Services (NGWS) - something that could turn out to be the company's saving grace. NGWS technology will be used as an authentication mechanism for any internet-enabled application, but also for transaction management, payment and billing, and inventory management.
"Microsoft Soap would be an ideal candidate for this job," said Collins. This would be coupled with a communications handling mechanism known as Rope (remote object proxy engine). "Now Soap may be kept quiet because Microsoft's whole future may depend on NGWS, which may be killed by the ongoing court case," he added.
Big Blue gets in on the act
IBM, which is developing its own Java-based Soap technology, is playing a different game. The company has donated its technology to the Apache Software Foundation, an open source organisation that builds free web software such as Apache Web Server.
The Apache Software Foundation is working on an XML initiative called xml.apache.org. The goal, backed by IBM, is to drive the adoption of XML for business-to-business and ebusiness by offering free XML tools and technology. Companies that donate technology to the project say the initiative will allow ebusinesses to conduct online transactions and data sharing easily and cheaply.
Marie Wieck, IBM's director of e-markets infrastructure, said Soap for Java would allow companies using Java to use Soap for ebusiness. "To move at internet speed we are making it available to the open-source community, which is valuable for further adoption," she said.
Gartner analyst Mark Driver said that on this basis IBM may beat Microsoft to the punch. Big Blue is already a provider of enterprise data centre technology, acknowledging environments where co-existence among platforms such as MVS, AS/400 and Unix is paramount. A significant number of ebusinesses will have both Microsoft and Java platform systems.
Soap would enable IBM to position itself as a bridge between the two technologies, and smooth the decision process of whether to use Java or Microsoft, said Driver.
"Soap enables IBM to gain credit as an innovator in Java technology. But ironically, IBM has had considerable input into the evolution of many Java technologies for some time. However, much of the credit and focus for those innovations has gone to Sun. Soap enables IBM to demonstrate an innovative vision above and beyond its contributions to the core Java platform," he added.
Gunning for Java
There is another reason for Microsoft to be reticent about its headway with Soap, said Driver. The company is following the same path as Java, and does not want to lose control of the standard once it appears. "To Microsoft, Soap is a Java killer, and with an XML-based standard for application communication, why bother with the layers of complex interfaces that have evolved around the Java spec?"
Driver said Microsoft is reinventing the request broker and remote procedure call with Rope, and hopes that its adopters will wash away the competitors.
However, the ultimate success of Soap will depend on a critical mass of support from both vendors and end users above and beyond where Microsoft and IBM are able to evangelise, he added.
"Soap will be the first real test of Sun's Java Community Process, as several vendors inevitably will push to include Soap support directly within the core Java platform."
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