In an about-face, IBM is paving the way for rival Sun Microsystems to join a key Web services standards organization, hoping to quell political infighting that could put a damper on the emerging technology.
At issue is a three-month old industry consortium, called the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I), that aims to promote Web services by ensuring software from various technology makers is compatible.
Sun has in the past accused IBM and Microsoft, co-founders of the organization, of engaging in "political shenanigans" for not allowing Sun to join as an equal partner. Sun in February was invited to join as a "contributing" member, but has ignored the invitation, campaigning instead for more influential "founding board member" status, so it can help set the group's agenda.
IBM now argues that Sun should be offered higher status within WS-I because its Java software is expected to be a popular foundation for Web services. IBM is also a leading vendor of Java-based software. Sources have said the WS-I board met earlier this spring and discussed whether Sun should be admitted as a founding board member. The majority of the board approved the measure, but some, including Microsoft and IBM, voted against it.
IBM's new proposal--submitted last Friday--means Big Blue has changed its tune.
"We want to find a way to resolve the situation, so WS-I can move forward," said Tom Glover, IBM's program manager for Web services standards and chair of the WS-I board. "We're looking to find a way to make equitable changes to allow Sun--should they become a WS-I member--to run for a seat on the board."
Sun, which has still not joined the WS-I, could not be reached for comment.
IBM executives say they have proposed adding two extra board members in the WS-I, giving Sun and other companies a chance to join the board. The proposal would need to be approved by the WS-I's nine current board members, which include BEA Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle and Intel.
IBM's proposal, which calls for two additional board members, is not guaranteed to pass. First, the WS-I board needs to approve the proposal; then the more than 100 members of the WS-I would vote on which two companies would join the board. IBM initially envisions a two-year term, so companies can take turns on the board, IBM's Glover said.
One major stumbling block is Microsoft. Sources on the WS-I board say IBM's proposal would probably first require unanimous approval among the existing nine WS-I members. So far, Microsoft executives say they will not support Sun's entry on the board. Neil Charney, Microsoft's director of .Net Platform Strategy, said the focus of the group should not be on the makeup of the board, but on the entire community of more than 100 companies working to create blueprints for using Web services standards this year.
"We would continue to support the original board position and not change the structure," Charney said. "We're supporting of the board's attempts to focus on the deliverables."
Besides Sun, sources say about a dozen other companies are quietly lobbying to join the board, including Ariba, Cisco Systems, Compaq Computer, Iona Technologies, KPMG International, Novell, Reed Business Information, Reuters, Tibco, VeriSign and WebMethods.
But Sun has been the most vocal.
Analysts say IBM's proposal is a positive step in trying to resolve the situation. Gartner analyst Daryl Plummer said mudslinging between Sun, IBM and Microsoft threatens to fragment the Web services standards efforts, which could hurt adoption of the technology.
Many companies see Web services reshaping the way the Internet is used, providing more efficient ways for companies to build software to more easily conduct transactions. But for the market to take off, companies need to agree on standards.
For example, Plummer said Sun's entry in the WS-I would make Sun more apt to address Microsoft's and IBM's intellectual property issues surrounding the Liberty Alliance Project. The Liberty Alliance, a competitor to Microsoft's Passport technology, seeks to standardize and simplify digital identity processes such as signing on to a Web site. Sun, which created the Liberty Alliance, has offered IBM and Microsoft founder status, but neither has joined.
Plummer said cooperation between the companies involved with Liberty and WS-I is crucial for both efforts to succeed.
"IBM, Microsoft and Sun constantly going at each other is not doing any good for Web services interoperability," he said. "In the minds of adopters of Web services, they've been fearing that the bickering would destroy everything."
Giga Information Group analyst Uttam Narsu said it's too soon to tell whether IBM's proposal will resolve the issue. The nine members are permanent members of the board because they are founders. The two extra board seats are for a several-year term. Sun needs to join now if it wants to be involved with WS-I, Narsu said.
"For Sun, it takes two to tango. If (Sun doesn't join), its ability to influence WS-I will wane," Narsu said.