Out of order

The Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I) is out of order. The technical term is broke, busted, clueless -- and now, term-limited. And Norbert Mikula is the Jack Valenti of the Web Services community. What am I saying -- a stooge of the entrenched monopolists? As the world's foremost authority, comedian Professor Irwin Corey says, "No, no, I really mean that."

Jack Valenti is the head of the Motion Picture Association of America and a former aide to President Lyndon Johnson. Norbert Mikula is director of technology at Intel Corp.'s research lab and vice chairman of WS-I. As the former CTO of DataChannel Inc. and the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), Mikula was a credible advocate for XML standards. As a principal of WS-I, he has devolved into the mouthpiece for the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America Inc.) of the computer industry.

Why am I being so harsh? It's simple: The Web services stack continues to be under attack from an organization led by IBM, Microsoft Corp., and a cynical group of executives who apparently think they can attain Web standards by brute force.

You may recall IBM Standards Chief Bob Sutor's tap dance about Sun Microsystems Inc. joining WS-I. He was willing to say anything but yes to Sun joining the group as a founding member, shifting the blame from Sun's SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) recalcitrance to the mechanics of WS-I's bylaws. Finally, Sutor announced IBM's support for adding two seats to the founding board -- and we waited.

Strangely, Sun grew quiet as well. After a panel on Web services I moderated at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology conference in May, I asked Sun executive Bill Smith about the status of the Sun seat on the board. Smith repeated the hope that Sun would be invited, but indicated he had been asked to keep a low profile. The ball was in IBM's court and on its way to WS-I approval.

Imagine my surprise more than a month later when Mikula told IDG News Service's Matt Berger what all the quiet was about. Yes, the nine-member board unanimously approved a working group to propose a method to appoint two new "founding" members. But Mikula said the new members would join for a two-year term and be forced to run for re-election.

Wait, here comes the punch line: Mikula added that the current board members, including founding fathers IBM and Microsoft, are not subject to term limits, and won't be in the future. And Sun would have to join the organization as a member in order to be considered for a board seat. "What we're being offered is the opportunity to join a lottery -- to join a beauty parade for a temporary place on a second-tier position on the board," says Simon Phipps, Sun's chief technology evangelist. "We're not interested. We want to be a founding member so that we can fix the bug in WS-I, which has been built in by its founders about preserving the royalty control of future standards on the Internet."

Sun's position, Phipps says, is that the infrastructure of the Internet should be royalty free. "There's been a market that has been successfully manipulated by two monopolists," Phipps challenges, and "new infrastructure is being proposed which is under threat through control of patents."

But what about Sun's reluctant but now full-fledged support of SOAP, which itself has intellectual property claims from both IBM and Microsoft? "Players in the industry are being forced to do things which in any other circumstances they would consider to be unwise," Phipps says. He views WS-I as an organization designed to marginalize Sun.

Then why join the party at all? Isn't it like the old Groucho Marx line about not wanting to join any club that would have him as a member? "We'd be thrilled to be part of a group that would have us, but they won't have us. What they instead are insisting is that we bow before the great god of the IBM and Microsoft duopoly."

As for term limits, Phipps is not surprised at the tactic. "It doesn't matter what Rube Goldberg mechanisms they come up with to make it look as if they're inviting us while still actively rejecting us." Phipps also rejects the time frame: "It could take us longer than two years to sort out the royalty-payable approach that WS-I is taking."

Mikula sees term limits as a good way to keep things responsive to the market. "The two-year term is a good practice," he told Matt Berger, "in a sense that membership needs to be continuously polled about who is on the board." OK, Norbert, then what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Why not term-limit everybody then? Let's see how long Microsoft survives a poll by 100 voting members.

Microsoft remains quiet in the background, content to let IBM and its proxies wage war out front. WS-I continues to announce new members, but old-timers see familiar signs of a potential balkanization of the Web services stack. It's hard to get this sentiment on the record, but sometimes you can read between the lines.

Take John Landry, former vice president of technology strategy at IBM and chairman of the thinkingBytes Web services startup, for instance. "Customers should be demanding that these guys get this straight, because this is finally the promised land on interoperability between systems," he says. "Anybody who breaks that mold should be banned from being in the business."

Phipps is still guardedly hopeful about WS-I, even as he calls it an unvarnished attempt at market manipulation. "It would be a shame to see such a big initiative wasted because of the petty politics of the monopolists that founded it," he says. Phipps fondly remembers the Norbert Mikula of old. "He's got a new organ grinder now," he sighs.

As one standards insider put it, it may be Norbert Mikula's lips moving but it's Bob Sutor speaking.

Steve Gillmor is director of InfoWorld's Test Center. You can reach him at steve_gillmor@infoworld.com.

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