The words open and standards are loaded terms in the world of e-commerce, but IBM last week promised to rerelease its middleware products around what it hopes will be open Internet standards that can nudge businesses closer to achieving the free flow of information.
Yet users and analysts questioned whether vendors will ultimately be able to curb their proprietary tendencies to make the open standards IBM Corp. has embraced capable of mission-critical e-commerce.
"It's a big animal to move," said Dave Kulakowski, a South Bend, Ind.-based development and technology manager at the aircraft landing systems division of Honeywell International Inc. "I don't know that any one company can get you there by itself."
By the end of next month, IBM will release updated versions of its WebSphere application server, DB2 relational database, Tivoli Web management tools and Lotus Domino messaging software. All releases will support the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) delivery mechanism; the Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI) directory; and Web Services Description Language (WSDL), which defines what services a business offers and how trading partners can electronically access those services.
Rod Smith, IBM's vice president for emerging technology, cautioned that airtight messaging security, transactional protocols and business process schema are all critical and still unavailable pieces of the e-commerce puzzle.
"I compare this to a 10-mile race, and we're still at the half to three-quarter mile," he said.
The finish line is a world in which corporations can freely exchange information both internally and externally, when and how they please. To date, most companies have been challenged to put their own houses in order, attempting to share only limited information over the Web with external parties.
Yet Smith stressed that IBM's latest release will provide off-the-shelf tools to get a lot of firms in the race. He added that vendors face the challenge of convincing users that they can collaborate to build products that will work together.
"Integration is not going to happen quickly," he said. "[Vendors] have always made it real difficult to do business, because we haven't built to standards. These news Web services are an attempt to change that."
Martin Marshall, an analyst at Zona Research Inc. in Redwood City, Calif., said IBM is breaking some new ground by enabling existing middleware for business-to-business usage.
"Wrappering legacy tools has huge potential," he said. "Why? Because [they've] already been debugged."
Yet he argued that giving companies a method to exchange information doesn't solve the e-commerce puzzle.
"It's business process and workflow that is the real nub of this stuff," Marshall said. "That's the level at which things get done. And right now, we don't know if it will be transferrable or if that's where the proprietization takes place."
Microsoft Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Oracle Corp. will also be releasing e-commerce product suites this year. Marshall said he suspects that few of the products will interoperate with those of their competitors, beyond the messaging and directory levels.
Sun spokesman David Harrah said his company plans to support the same Internet standards as those in IBM's release as "a cross-platform, vendor-neutral way of dishing up your data."
Ted Schadler, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said he expects users to demand that vendors adhere to certain standards like SOAP, UDDI and WSDL but that ultimately, vendors will offer products before many customers have defined what they want.
"They'll do it once in one industry, and then it's ready to sell to everyone else," he said.
On the upside, Kulakowski said, the WebSphere release will allow Honeywell to start pushing out to its suppliers and customers the Java-based objects it has been building internally for the past three years. Honeywell now has Java components on everything from safety reports on its shop floor to tool design needs and tracking.
"My guess is it's going to take a long time to build those connections," Kulakowski said.