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Microsoft joins XML industry group

In an apparent about-face, Microsoft hooks up with an Extensible Markup Language industry consortium supported by its competitors, easing fears that a Java-like war will erupt.

In an apparent about-face, Microsoft has joined an Extensible Markup Language (XML) industry consortium supported by its competitors, easing fears that a Java-like war will splinter the XML market.

Microsoft has joined Oasis, a nonprofit XML industry consortium endorsed by Microsoft's rivals, including IBM and Sun Microsystems.

James Utzschneider, director of Microsoft's BizTalk initiative, said the company on Friday decided to join Oasis at the senior-member level, meaning the company has paid Oasis a $7,500 fee and is participating in planning meetings. Utzschneider also said Microsoft is evaluating a Web site sponsorship pledge of $100,000 to the organization.

Just last week, Utzschneider said Microsoft was hesitant to join Oasis, because he was not convinced the organization could handle the job. "Oasis seems like a fine organization, and they have a good vision. But they only have one employee and are in the process of raising funds to operate XML.org," he said at the time.

Now, Utzschneider said Microsoft will help Oasis define its charter and technical guidelines, a move that could help XML adoption overall, said analysts--as long as Microsoft doesn't push a proprietary agenda.

Both Microsoft and Oasis last week launched portal sites for XML developers that host Document Type Definitions (DTDs) that serve as XML data exchange blueprints for specific industries, such as financial services and healthcare, for instance.

Microsoft's BizTalk.org Web site, and Oasis' XML.org site are intended to serve as DTD repositories and resource centers for companies implementing XML. BizTalk.org will host BizTalk-specific DTDs, while Oasis intends to host information for "any and all specifications," according to Laura Walker, executive director of Oasis.

XML is touted as an industry-neutral language that has the potential to revolutionize information exchange in much the same way that HTML has forever changed user interfaces. But so far, many companies implementing XML have done so using their own unique schemas, according to Steve Robins, an analyst with the Yankee Group.

Microsoft's BizTalk, Ariba's cXML, and Commerce One's CBL all employ vendor-specific schema.

What XML proponents fear most is that the major software makers will use their financial clout to hijack the consensus-building process, leading to proprietary and incompatible versions of XML schemas that favor a particular company's software and architecture.

Microsoft and Oasis compete, in a sense, since both seek to establish industry consensus and provide a forum for XML definition.

Fears of a split
The larger conflict involved Microsoft's apparent split from the rest of the software business over XML. Oasis counts among its members almost all major software makers.

"To some extent, the uproar over BizTalk vs. xml.org caught Microsoft and Oasis off-guard," said Robins. "They both felt that they were helping to move the process forward. It's unlikely that Microsoft will commandeer Oasis because Oasis has IBM, Oracle, and Sun as its members - and I don't think that they will let that happen."

Robins said he believes competing DTDs will still exist, but that Microsoft's membership in Oasis could help to reduce the number. "Note that it's hard to know exactly what will happen as Microsoft joins Oasis. I think that there will still be competing DTD's of some sort but [Microsoft's membership in Oasis] will increase the interoperability between them and this will likely consolidate or reduce the number of DTD's."

Microsoft's financial clout will certainly help raise the organization's profile. While Oasis claims many big-name backers, the company has not yet received enough vendor support in membership dues and firm commitments from Oracle and Sun, according to Josh Walker, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Oasis to announce partners
Oasis intends to announce a list of XML.org partners later this month, according to Walker. Until that time, she declined to comment on who will be on the list or how much funding the organization has received. "I can, however, say that we are supremely confident that we will have the resources necessary to pull XML.org off," she said.

Forrester's Walker said Microsoft's hat in the Oasis ring should be enough to prod other software makers into providing support to the organization. "This is exactly what we were hoping Microsoft would do. The combination of the two sites is a great win for XML in general. [Microsoft's involvement] certainly now puts the ball into the court of Sun, IBM and other Oasis members--they now have to now step up and fund the group and make sure it succeeds," he said.

"Overall, Oasis will become a better magnet for user companies if they know [Microsoft and other software makers] are behind the effort," he said.