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Standards groups reach e-business accord

A brewing controversy over e-business standards may have been averted, as Web standards group Oasis has agreed to support the work of the World Wide Web Consortium.

    A brewing controversy over e-business standards may have been averted Thursday after one Web standards group agreed to support the work of another.

    The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the gatekeeper of many Internet standards, and Oasis, a group of technology companies backed by the United Nations, have been developing competing technologies to allow businesses to link over the Internet and conduct e-commerce.

    Oasis on Thursday announced it is ceasing its effort to build a communications protocol for e-commerce business communications in favor of a competing specification under development by the W3C. The W3C recently began building an XML-based protocol based on technology developed by Microsoft, IBM and others, called the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP).

    At issue is the need to build an XML-based communications protocol that serves as a common format for businesses to swap information with each other. XML (Extensible Markup Language) is a popular Web standard for businesses to exchange information with each other via the Web.

    The result is one uniform standard for exchanging XML messages and less confusion among software developers on what standard to use in the future, said Bob Sutor, IBM's program director for e-business standards strategy.

    Companies conducting business over the Web need a common format to send information to one another, much like the post office has a standard way for people to send mail, Sutor said. People are required to write addresses and place stamps on the same places on an envelope so the post office knows where to send mail.

    Until now, Oasis and the W3C differed in their definitions of that format. Before Oasis' support of SOAP, both Oasis and the W3C had said they would create connectors so that the two differing communications protocols could communicate. Now, that work will be unnecessary.

    "We don't need unnecessary duplication," Sutor said of the competing efforts. "It means that software that businesses use can be simpler because they will have fewer specifications for messaging. People can devote more time on creating really new software to make their businesses better, rather than being mired down in the details of supporting yet another messaging protocol."

    The W3C has begun work in creating the XML protocol and expects to release a working draft by May, said W3C spokeswoman Janet Daly.

    The messaging protocol was just one small piece of an overarching effort, called Electronic Business XML, or EBXML, by Oasis.

    Oasis, which includes IBM, Sun Microsystems, BEA Systems and others, has been working with a United Nations organization to develop a blueprint for businesses in different industries to use XML.

    The EBXML effort is aimed at allowing companies that use older data-exchange technology, called Electronic Data Interchange, or EDI, to start using more flexible and potentially cheaper XML-based software over the Internet.

    Ironically, SOAP was originally created by Microsoft, which is not an active member of the EBXML effort. Microsoft has also created a high-level guideline for XML, called BizTalk, which some Oasis members say may compete with the overall EBXML effort. Both efforts will now support SOAP as an underlying protocol, however.

    Some Oasis members, such as IBM and Sun, originally saw SOAP as too closely tied to Microsoft technology. But SOAP gained industry support after IBM, Lotus Development and other companies began working with it and developing a newer version that was less Microsoft-specific.

    Microsoft executives have said the company will support EBXML if its customers demand it.