XML Factions Develop Along Familiar Lines

Anyone wondering what Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. are thinking about each others' work on XML (extensible markup language) got some insight this week when the two companies made competing announcements about their latest activities to advance the use of the language to support Internet-based business-to business transactions.

Though neither side characterized the situation as war, they sniped at each other on Thursday, a day after a faction led by Sun held a news conference in San Francisco to demonstrate business transactions over ebXML (extensible business XML). On the same day, and not by coincidence, ebXML faction officials said, Microsoft announced the release of BizTalk Server 2000, an XML product that allows businesses to integrate applications across differing platforms using the Internet.

A Sun official complained that Microsoft was trying to steal ebXML's thunder by releasing its BizTalk news on the same day as the ebXML demonstration, but a Microsoft official said the company was only sticking to a previously announced schedule.

"I don't find it surprising that Microsoft would come out and make an announcement on top of us," said Bill Smith, a member of the ebXML initiative's executive committee. "They just pushed (BizTalk) on the same day, obviously, for competitive reasons."

Microsoft announced Tuesday that the "gold" code for BizTalk Server 2000, in beta since August, has been sent to manufacturing. The CDs will ship in late January or early February in keeping with the roadmap Microsoft announced at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas in November.

Microsoft officials say the company's BizTalk Framework, not the server, is the more "apples to apples" comparison with ebXML. The framework is a communications protocol based on industry standards for data exchange and security, such as SOAP, (simple object access protocol) XML and S/MIME (Secure/Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions).

"The results shown by the ebXML proof of concept are entirely consistent with what our partners and customers have demonstrated using SOAP (simple object access protocol) and the BizTalk Framework over the last year," said David Turner, Microsoft product manager and technical evangelist for XML technologies, in an e-mail response to a question about Microsoft's position on ebXML.

At the XML 2000 conference in Washington on Dec. 6, Turner said the architecture Microsoft envisions for XML allows for the exchange of information on any platform, in any program language and across any network. He described Microsoft's investment in XML as "substantial," and said the company would continue its involvement in the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Dave Wascha, product manager for BizTalk Server 2000, said Sun, Oracle Corp. and other companies have representatives in the W3C and the Internet Engineering Task Force, and those standards bodies are "the right place to do this work," said Wascha, who labeled the ebXML faction's announcement on Tuesday a defensive move to create confusion.

"We launched a cool product," Wascha said. "Everybody wants to talk about where there is conflict. There isn't any conflict because one of the two (products) exists and the other doesn't."

Wascha accused Sun of hyping ebXML before it's final and said that Microsoft doesn't have a position on ebXML because "the spec isn't even done." He added that he and his colleagues at Microsoft refer to ebXML as "slideware," meaning they believe it exists only on presentation slides. Meanwhile, Wascha said the BizTalk Framework has had customers using it for more than a year.

At Tuesday's demonstration, Smith said the ebXML specification would be ready for vendors to implement after the next meeting of the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) in February, two months ahead of schedule. Taking his turn at Microsoft, Smith criticized the BizTalk Framework, saying that to claim that it is open just because it's based on XML is not sufficient.

"That's like saying (that) because humans speak languages ... we can communicate. What we are doing at ebXML and other initiatives out in the open is establishing the language of communication, not the concept of communication." he said.

The ebXML initiative is focused on the "schema," or the terms and conditions of the business relationship. This includes business transaction rules such as when a customer is eligible for a discount granted by a supplier for early payment of an invoice.

The ebXML executive committee Smith serves on is composed of two members of OASIS and two members of the United Nations Center for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Commerce (UN/CEFACT), one of the world's top standards-setting bodies. The UN is involved in XML as an extension of its role in the creation of the current international standard for EDI (electronic data interchange). OASIS, a nonprofit consortium, is sponsoring the ebXML initiative, and Smith is currently president of OASIS.

Smith said though Microsoft is a member of OASIS and some of its employees are on the OASIS mailing list, efforts to increase its participation have been unsuccessful. Microsoft attended the first meeting of the ebXML initiative in November 1999, but it has not sent representatives to any subsequent quarterly meeting, Smith said.

Smith and one of the U.N.'s ebXML executive committee representatives traveled to Microsoft's headquarters prior to the ebXML initiative's meeting in Tokyo this year to encourage Microsoft participation, but it was a futile effort, he said.

"The (ebXML) community actually would like to see Microsoft participate. We are at a loss as to why they don't (and) why they are out there on their own," Smith said.

Jonathan Eunice, principle analyst at Illuminata Inc. of Nashua, New Hampshire, said Microsoft has been getting its XML infrastructure ready to ship early while other companies, including Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp., are still coming up with their XML-based products.

"Microsoft is very frequently early to market on XML-based products," Eunice said. "They have been very early to understand the power of XML and do something about it. That has caught a lot of people off guard, including Sun."

But Eunice said at the same time Microsoft appears to be "in flux" on its approach to XML. While its BizTalk server is a good "orchestration engine" for tracking business-to-business requests and responses, "it's not clear to me that Microsoft has had a tremendously open relationship with the people who are defining the mechanisms of the conversations," he said.

Dick Raman, president of Tie Holding NV in Amsterdam, and a leader of the quality review team of the ebXML initiative, agreed that BizTalk server is a good engine that can receive files and translate them to an application, but he said Microsoft has ignored the importance of business semantics.

"BizTalk server is a beautiful tool ... but it doesn't address the efficient mapping of files," Raman said. "Business processes demand dozens of information fields in an XML file. In ebXML the file will be defined in a certain way and the server will understand how to process this file because of ebXML."

But Raman said the squabbling over XML could fade rapidly into memory. He said he could not imagine that BizTalk server would not support ebXML soon. Wascha didn't confirm that, but said if customers demand ebXML support in BizTalk, then Microsoft would consider it.

(Joris Evers, the IDG News Service Amsterdam correspondent , contributed to this report.) Microsoft, in Redmond, Washington, can be reached at +1-425-882-8080 or athttp://www.microsoft.com/; Sun Microsystems Inc., in Mountain View, California, can be reached at +1-650-960-1300, or at http://www.sun.com/

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