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Looming standards war:Who controls the future of Web services?

In this first part, we'll look at the standards war between OASIS and W3C. In the next part, we'll take a look at what the implications are for the future of Web services.

The Web Services Advisor
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Whoever controls Web services standards controls Web services. And whoever controls Web services controls the future of technology. So there are few things more important these days than who controls the standards that will define how Web services are implemented. With so much at stake, two of the premier standards-setting bodies, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), have gotten into a standards war, say some analysts, and it's being unclear over who controls which standards. And, say the analysts, it appears that they may be poaching on one another's territory.

In this first part of a two-part column, we'll look at the standards war between OASIS and W3C. In the next part, we'll take a look at what the implications are for the future of Web services.

Bumping heads
First, a bit of background about who's involved. The W3C (www.w3c.org) has long been the premier standards-setting body for Web-based technologies. Begun in 1994, it has established the standards for the basic architecture of the Web, including HTML and HTTP. In more recent years, it has also gotten involved in setting some basic Web services standards, such as SOAP and XML.

OASIS (www.oasis-open.org) is a newer and more targeted standards-setting body that focuses on electronic business, and so Web services standards are key for it. It handles the UDDI standard, for example, among others.

The problem is that there is no demarcation between the two bodies, and so they on occasion bump heads and back competing standards. Most recently, the W3C and OASIS have backed competing standards for automating business processes, sometimes called Web services orchestration, which essentially define the way that Web services integrate with business processes, allowing Web services from different companies to interact more efficiently with one another. In March, the W3C established its WS-Choreography Working Group, but then about a month later, a Web Services Business Process Execution Language (WSBPL) standards was submitted to OASIS by IBM, Microsoft, SAP AG and BEA, and OASIS accepted work on it. So now, the W3C and OASIS appear to have dueling standards over the future of Web services.

Controlling the future
Behind the split, say some analysts, are a fight over who will control the future of Web services. According to Stephen O'Grady, an analyst with the Red Monk analyst firm, the standards bodies are a kind of proxy fighting force — the real conflict is between vendors, who use the standards bodies to stand in for them.

"The standards bodies aren't really the ones pushing innovation — they're clearing houses, a means to an end," O'Grady contends. "The folks responsible for the conflicts are the vendors, because they're the ones submitting specifications to the bodies."

In O'Grady's view, the most recent BPEL battle is just part of the ongoing conflict between the Sun/Oracle axis on one side, and the Microsoft/IBM union on the other. He says that the groups are fighting about reliable messaging and a single sign-on standard, as well. The two sides are fighting for a simple reason: Whoever controls standards controls the future, and neither side is willing to compromise, he says.

Daniel Sholler, Vice President of Technology Research Services for the Meta Group analyst firm, adds that vendors in essence, "shop around for a body that will agree to take their standards." He says that the Microsoft/IBM consortium has chosen to go with OASIS rather than the W3C "possibly because the W3C isn't seen as being speedy enough."

He believes that it is inevitable that these kinds of disagreements will occur, given that there are a number of standards-setting bodies. "As soon as there's a disagreement, a vendor knows that he can go off to another body," he says.

The standards-setting bodies themselves walk a thin line when taking on standards. On the one hand, he says, they want to wield as much influence as possible, and "they drive their legitimacy and influence from being seen as the focal point for standards." On the other hand, he adds, "they don't want to be seen as agreeing to proprietary standards."

The standards-setting bodies themselves, however, don't see a conflict between them. Patrick Gannon, president and CEO of OASIS, for example, says that "we have an extremely cooperative, complementary relationship" with the W3C and that they work on joint projects frequently. As for the rift that others see between them, specifically over BPEL, he claims that the W3C and OASIS standards serve different purposes, and that in general the W3C has a broader focus on the underlying Internet architecture, while OASIS "focuses higher up in the protocol stack, specifically for ebusiness standards for he business community."

How the W3C and OASIS differ
Some analysts point out that there are other differences between the W3C and OASIS as well, and that the potential rift between them has to do with the way that each body operates. In this view of the world, companies that want standards to be created as quickly as possible will naturally turn to OASIS.

"The W3C has a very formal, very deliberative process," says Ron Schmelzer, Senior Analyst with the Web services consulting group ZapThink. "It can take two or three years from draft to recommendation. OASIS, on the other hand, works on more of a community process and it's much easier for a spec to come out quickly. That makes it easier to throw something on the wall to see what sticks. So OASIS is good for moving quickly on standards, but the standards can have varying usefulness and quality. They did UDDI and that was very solid. But they also did the Election Markup Language and the Human Markup Language, which were not so solid."

Looking to the future
What does all this mean for the future of Web services? Most analysts believe that competing standards slows down the acceptance of the technology, and so in the long run hurts both users and vendors. We'll look more at the implications of the rift in the second part of this column.

Continues in Part Two

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About the Author

Preston Gralla, a well-known technology expert, is the author of more than 20 books, including "How the Internet Works," which has been translated into 14 languages and sold several hundred thousand copies worldwide. He is an expert on Web services and the author of a major research and white paper for the Software and Information Industry Association on the topic. Gralla was the founding managing editor of PC Week, a founding editor and then editor and editorial director of PC/Computing, and an executive editor for ZDNet and CNet. He has written about technology for more than 15 years for many major magazines and newspapers, including PC Magazine, Computerworld, CIO Magazine, eWeek and its forerunner PC Week, PC/Computing, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Dallas Morning News among others. As a well-known technology guru, he appears frequently on TV and radio shows and networks, including CNN, MSNBC, ABC World News Now, the CBS Early Show, PBS's All Things Considered and others. He has won a number of awards for his writing, including from the Computer Press Association for the Best Feature in a Computer Publication. He can be reached at preston@gralla.com.

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