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IBM switches support to Microsoft-backed Web standard

After voicing criticism, IBM changes its mind and is working with the software giant on a potential standard that allows businesses to link Web-based software.

    After criticizing a Web technology created by rival Microsoft, IBM has changed its mind and is working with the software giant on a potential Internet standard that allows businesses to link Web-based software.

    The communications technology, Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), allows businesses to link their computing systems over the Net. It is based on a Web standard for exchanging data called XML (Extensible Markup Language).

    When the software giant unveiled the technology in October, IBM executives said SOAP too closely favored Microsoft technologies over industry standards. They said the effort to create SOAP should have originated from a standards organization, not from Microsoft. Sun Microsystems was even more dismissive, calling the technology pure hype with no value.

    But IBM has had a change of heart. Microsoft yesterday released an updated version of SOAP that included the work of IBM and its subsidiary Lotus Development. IBM and Microsoft executives said they expect to release tools soon that will allow developers to test SOAP in their own software.

    The main reason for IBM's support is the need for the software industry to find a way for businesses to link their different computing systems, said Bob Sutor, IBM's program director for XML technology.

    Its move can be viewed as a major coup for Microsoft and a slam against Sun. IBM, while a strong Java supporter, has had its differences with Sun's handling of the Java standard and the company's refusal to hand control of the technology to an industry standards group.

    Giga Information Group analyst Mike Gilpin said IBM's support for SOAP gives the potential standard instant credibility.

    "IBM's support means that SOAP will be a real factor in interoperability between different programming models," he said.

    Sun executives yesterday said the company will support SOAP if it becomes a Web standard.

    "There's a lot of appeal (to SOAP) because it's so easy to use," said Anne Thomas Manes, Sun's director of business strategy. "But if the world decides this is the standard, we'll support it."

    Sun executives previously argued that SOAP was useless because existing communications protocols in its Java programming software can do the same work. Analysts disagreed with that reasoning, saying those protocols would only work in a pure Java system.

    The World Wide Taking sides on XMLWeb Consortium (W3C) in the coming months will host a panel discussion on SOAP and other similar communications protocols to determine which should become the standard XML format.

    SOAP is intended to solve a long-standing dilemma faced by businesses over competing programming models. For the most part, software developers have settled on two ways to write business software. Microsoft supports a model that steers businesses to use its dominant Windows operating system. Sun Microsystems, Oracle, IBM and dozens of others support their own proprietary model based on the Java programming language and Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA), two tightly integrated technologies.

    SOAP would serve as a common communications format that would link the different programming models together, allowing businesses with different computing systems to connect and conduct trades online, regardless of the model they use.

    In some ways, SOAP can be seen as a threat to IBM and Sun--both Java backers--because it could nullify the effectiveness of their marketing strategy for Java. A Forrester Research study last year found that large companies favored Java and CORBA by a 2-to-1 margin over Microsoft's programming model. For Microsoft, better compatibility between Windows-based software and Java software could lead to greater adoption of the Windows operating system.

    IBM's decision to back SOAP stems from changes made to the specification by Microsoft. An IBM executive said Microsoft in November submitted a draft of SOAP to the Internet Engineering Task Force, an industry standards group, and was willing to make changes that IBM had suggested.

    Businesses can choose to use any programming model they want, Sutor said, "but are you going to say we can't talk to each other? We want everything to communicate, and SOAP further enhances interoperability."

    About 20 companies have voiced support for SOAP, including Iona Technologies, Compaq Computer, Intel, Ariba and Commerce One.

    Both IBM and Microsoft executives believe the W3C and the Internet Engineering Task Force will have roles in making SOAP a standard protocol.

    Sutor said some important changes in the latest version of SOAP include the ability to not only exchange data over the Internet but through other technology, such as messaging software.

    IBM, for example, plans to add SOAP to its MQSeries business messaging software, which is designed to ensure that information sent from a business application is delivered to its intended target.

    Sutor said the new version of SOAP also features less Microsoft-specific technology and more support for Web standards.