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Standards stupidities and tech's future

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says the new round of bickering between Microsoft and Sun is part of a decades-long inability by technologists to agree on how to get from A to Z.

The technology business may employ more brainy people on a per capita basis than any industry in the world. But when it comes to agreeing on technical standards, the behavior of some of these very bright people more resembles the plot in "Dumb and Dumber."

An outsider looking in would easily assume that, with all this intellectual firepower, these folks would understand their best interests and would be able to decide how to proceed without a major struggle. What could be simpler? All for one, one for all--and all that jazz.

But when it comes to figuring out the best way to get from A to Z, bruising (and pointless) Silicon Valley clashes over standards are the norm rather than the exception.

Hang around this business long enough and you realize that, while the actors change, the script lines remain much the same. And each time one of these donnybrooks erupt, the protagonists say they are only working on behalf of what's good for customers. This is all very touching, and I'm sure that it's of great interest to the committee members for the Oscars. Back on Planet Earth, however, it rates as a monumental waste of time and energy.

The latest bit of grandstanding involves the move to set standards for Web services, for which--surprise, surprise--Microsoft and Sun Microsystems are happily bickering and backstabbing each other. This is only the latest debacle in their decades-long rivalry, but it comes at a particularly inopportune time for IT customers who are debating where Web services should fit within their operations.

Although the Web services world has been inching toward resolving a lot of its issues, this has been a slow-motion story. If Web services is ever going to live up to its hype, the technology industry needs to make sure that its programming standards guarantee the reliability of XML message transmissions.

The two sides agree with that notion. From there, however, it's pistols at 20 paces.

Microsoft is pushing something that it calls WS-ReliableMessaging, which was co-developed with IBM, BEA Systems and Tibco. Meanwhile, a competing specification called Web Services Reliable Messaging is being backed by Sun, Oracle, Fujitsu, Hitachi, NEC and Sonic Software.

The Microsoft spec hasn't yet made its way to a standards group, while Sun's got turned over to the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) in February. Each side says it has the better recipe, and now Sun is accusing Microsoft of purposely fouling things up as a Johnny Come Lately.

Hang around this business long enough, and you realize that, while the actors change, the script lines remain much the same.
Unless the sides bury the hatchet, the risk is that opposing Web standards will evolve. That would further slow down business use because of concerns over interoperability.

Politics doesn't always have to trump good sense. Consider recent events in the Web logging world, where there's been a long-running debate about where to take Really Simple Syndication (RSS), the XML-based format for Web content distribution.

This technology helps people stay up to date with their favorite Web logs, simply by checking their RSS feeds, which in turn pop up the latest headlines or changes. But different formats have taken shape since the days when RSS was first used to power different channels on Netscape's Netcenter.

Which format is best? There's no consensus, but Dave Winer of UserLand, the company that invented RSS 2.0, recently came up with a sensible way to get out of the thickets.

Politics doesn't always have to trump good sense.
Earlier in the month, UserLand transferred copyrights to Harvard's Berkman Center under a Creative Commons license and set up an advisory board.

Whether that ends the feuding with folks who have very different ideas about how to advance the spec is anyone's guess. But it strikes me as laudable. Instead of opting for a proprietary land grab, a company that was an RSS tools builder freely gave up its guardianship to a nonprofit trust.

The stakes for Web services vendors may be a lot greater, but the example of a company considering the greater public interest over parochial ones is worthy of emulation. At the very least, it's encouraging to know that someone is thinking outside of the box.