Can Sun Play Well With Others?

By Brian Morrissey With WS-I board membership in sight, Sun Microsystems must decide if it can work with Microsoft to develop Web services' standards.

Although they continue to bicker over antitrust matters and Windows support for Java, a deal is in the works that could break finally the impasse between Sun Microsystems (NASDAQ:SUNW) and Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ:MSFT) over Sun's role in a key Web services standards body.

On Wednesday, the board of the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I) has approved a new working group to form proposals for expanding the board from its current nine members to 11.

With an extra two elected seats, Sun could conceivably be mollified into joining with the promise of quickly attaining equal footing with WS-I founders Microsoft and IBM. Sun executives have repeatedly stated that the company will not join as anything less than an equal to Microsoft and IBM.

Web services, which allow businesses computer systems to interact with each other, have been held up as the Holy Grail of the software business for over a year. In February, Microsoft, IBM, SAP and a bevy of other tech heavy-hitters created WS-I to lock in standards for interoperable Web services across a variety of platforms, applications and programming languages.

However, Microsoft has rebuffed longtime rival Sun's demands that it be permitted to join as a founding member. Without such status, Sun has said it will not join the body, thrusting the standards process into disarray because Sun's Java programming language is expected to gird many aspects of Web services.

"IBM, Microsoft, SAP have been the grownups here," said Forrester Research analyst Ted Schadler. "Sun is the overachieving teenager who is not quite ready to give up independence."

Now, the WS-I has opened the door to Sun joining as a member and then running for a board seat, which industry watchers said it would almost certainly get. Sun officials won't comment on the decision officially, other than reiterate their stance that the company had not changed its terms for joining.

Norbert Mikula, WS-I's vice chairman, said the move to expand the board was done after 11 members expressed interest, not to gain Sun's participation. Regarding Sun, he would only venture, "There are many companies out there that we would like to see participate and we would like to see them join."

Noting that Sun's intransigence could hold up the standards process, Schadler said it is time for a compromise.

"Sun should take the olive branch WS-I has extended," he said. "My advice is to suck it up, bite the bullet, join and get a board seat."

In the meantime, WS-I has forged ahead, adding about 100 members, including AT&T, Cisco Systems and Proctor & Gamble. In April, during its first community meeting in San Francisco, WS-I formed three working groups that are to create specifications for the underlying Web services' protocols, sample applications, and self-administered tests for compliance with Web services standards. The WS-I said the working groups should produce offerings in the fall.

Schadler noted that joining WS-I is not only in the interest of the Web services industry, but Sun's as well.

"The outcome is inevitable," Schadler said, pointing out that Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) interoperability would certainly be codified. "It is about the pace of adoption due to users' comfort level" that is at risk.

This article was originally published on Jun 24, 2002
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