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Netscape takes standard control

In the latest scuffle in the standards wars, Netscape and Microsoft are jockeying for position over "metadata" for controlling and filtering networked information.

Politics and sausage are ugly to watch in the making, as the saying goes. One could add technical standards to that list.

In the latest scuffle in the standards wars, Netscape Communications (NSCP) and Microsoft (MSFT) are jockeying for position over "metadata," which proponents say is necessary to control and filter the ever-increasing amount of networked information.

The concept of "metadata" is used to describe data that talks about data. For example, the header information in an email--sender, receiver, time sent, the size of the message--is metadata. So is the summary information about a Web site, a push channel, or a Word document. If these pieces of information can be "tagged" and linked in a standard way, the burgeoning amount of networked information would be much easier to organize, search, and customize.

A working group within the standards-setting World Wide Web Consortium is hammering out a new specification for metadata called the resource description framework, or RDF, using ideas from group members Netscape, Microsoft, and several other software companies. Publicly, Netscape and Microsoft are downplaying each other's contributions to the process while advancing their own agendas.

"A lot of our members are in direct competition with one another," said W3C spokeswoman Sally Khudairi. "Because of Web time, they're all trying to get ahead of one another and be the first. They believe it gives them the competitive edge."

Netscape has taken the first stab at the driver's seat with an announcement today that it's collaborating with the W3C and organizing RDF support among content providers. At the same time, Netscape insists that the still-evolving specification will hew closely to Netscape's own metadata proposals.

The company has been lobbying for the adoption of the Meta Content Format, or MCF, specification as the basis for RDF. MCF was invented by Apple Computer, and its main architect has since moved to Netscape to work on its development.

"Some of the particulars may change, but the process of setting up a site to be read by an RDF viewer will be the same [as in MCF]. Some of the other formats like Microsoft's channel definition format are going to be subsumed into the larger metacontent format," Netscape group product manager Julie Herendeen said today.

Microsoft representatives last week disputed the claim that RDF would largely be based on MCF. The W3C's overview of the activity up to now says nothing about MCF as a basis for RDF. It does, however, state the group's requirement that XML, a syntactical extension of HTML, is used as a basis for RDF. The group is also looking to incorporate ideas or parts of the PICS framework, which has been used to rate Web sites according to content.

Microsoft has been evangelizing XML as the best way to publish metadata, while Netscape has taken much longer to get on the XML bandwagon, according to analysts. However, XML must be used within a larger structural framework. Whether that framework borrows heavily from MCF, as Netscape says it will, remains to be seen. Until the draft is released, it remains unclear whose ideas will take precedence.

The Netscape-Microsoft rivalry over metadata is a continuation of their fight over other sectors of Internet technology, according to one analyst.

"If Microsoft wins out, it'll legitimize their push strategy," said David Smith, research director at the Gartner Group. "Netscape once had complete control over [the changes made to] HTML; when they created a new tag, the Web followed. That's not how it works today. In general, Microsoft has been able to loosen Netscape's grip on Web-based standards."

W3C working groups aren't supposed to divulge their efforts outside of the consortium until the group members give the green light, according to the W3C's Khudairi. But Netscape ruffled feathers last week by sending out a draft of today's announcement to several content providers, some of whom aren't W3C members. The release never went public, and Netscape claims that the recipients were under nondisclosure and the information in the draft wasn't detailed enough to violate W3C rules.

"How we talked about it was at a highly general level," said Andres Espineira, Netscape's director of content partnerships.

The draft claimed that the emerging RDF specification was "largely based" on Netscape's June MCF proposal, but this was soon repudiated as "inaccurate" by both the W3C's Khudairi and by a Netscape representative.

"A very big mistake was made," said the W3C's Khudairi. "RDF is a collaborative effort. Before, Netscape was saying that MCF was RDF; now they're not saying it. The message is different."

Netscape sang a slightly different tune today. "RDF is going to be a lot closer to MCF than to any other preexisting format," said Herendeen.

The behind-the-scenes activity underscores how companies use standards organizations to promote their own agenda. Netscape is not the only guilty party.

"The unfortunate thing about standards bodies is that you throw these [proposals] to the lions, and the biggest lions are going to eat them," said Arthur Van Hoff, chief technology officer for Marimba.

The biggest lion right now is Microsoft, according to Van Hoff. Marimba, which makes client-server software for distributing applications over the Internet and internal networks, has shared the spotlight with Microsoft in recent specification announcements related to metadata.

The W3C's Khudairi acknowledged that companies exploit their membership in the organization to further their own goals. She stopped short, however, of saying that the organization needed to change its policies.

"This is not the first time something like this has happened. It's something we need to keep an eye on, but I don't know if we'll be changing any formal procedures."