Pots, kettles and black standards

Vendors like to create the illusion that they all work together to move the industry forward by cooperating to develop industry standards. But the truth is almost the exact opposite. The standards process has always been tainted with vendor politics.

Vendors like to create the illusion that they all work together to move the industry forward by cooperating to develop industry standards. But the truth is almost the exact opposite. The standards process has always been tainted with vendor politics, and in recent weeks the situation has only gotten worse. And as usual, IT organisations will be paying the price for vendor chicanery.

The latest intrigue surrounds the development of standards around web services. In case you missed it, BEA, IBM and Microsoft recently agreed to cooperate in the development of future web services standards as part of an effort to speed the adoption of web services. Obviously, the two companies that are prominently absent from this effort are Sun Microsystems and Oracle. To understand how this has all come about, we must first understand the current political environment in the industry and the different types of standards that exist.

In an ideal world, all standards are pure and are broadly supported. These “white” standards, such as TCP/IP and HTTP, have had a tremendous impact by helping to expand the universe of computing. But things change when you start to look at Java, which is an off-white standard that includes multiple industry partners. The downside of the Java approach to standards is that the technology is still owned and dominated by Sun, and the process by which things are added to the Java platform — known as the JCP (Java community process) — is painfully slow.

This state of affairs pushed IBM and Microsoft to develop SOAP (simple object access protocol) outside of the Java process, with IBM then using the collective weight of both companies to ram support for SOAP and web services down Sun’s throat. And now BEA has joined with IBM and Microsoft to help develop the next set of web services standards, which will be brought to the Java community by much the same process. Unfortunately, most of these technologies will be in the market long before the JCP gets around to ratifying them.

The grey approach to standards being put forth by BEA, IBM and Microsoft is a necessary evil because Sun refused to make Java a truly open standard. As a result, Sun’s partners no longer trust its motives and are frustrated by the pace of development when they have to compete with Microsoft. After all, Microsoft has the benefit of being master of a de facto black standard. Sun Microsystems, meanwhile, counters that IBM and Microsoft have not put SOAP in the public domain, so it doesn’t trust the motives of those two companies either. So we have a bunch of kettles and pots calling one another black.

This presents a problem: projects that IT organisations move forward on today may need to be significantly reworked when the standards are completely baked.

Most organisations must move forward on web services before all the standards are complete. And not much can be done about it, so feel free to distribute your curses equally among all the major players. They deserve it.

Michael Vizard is editor in chief of InfoWorld US. Send letters for publication in Computerworld NZ to Computerworld Letters.

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