Microsoft's new technology for exchanging information over the Web could give the software giant an advantage over Sun Microsystems, IBM, and other competitors if adopted by a standards body.
The new technology, called the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), based on the increasingly popular Web standard for data exchange called the Extensible Markup Language (XML), will let business software programs communicate over the Internet, regardless of the programming model on which they're based.
In many ways, SOAP, and Microsoft's plans to establish it as a standard, represent a reversal of Microsoft's past attempts to steer the software development business. The company has many times been accused of attempting to control the market with Windows, a de facto proprietary standard. With SOAP, Microsoft is proposing an open standard that would nullify a competitor's proprietary advantage.
Microsoft competitors, not surprisingly, are critical of the company's plans.
"What SOAP does is a significant threat to the rate of penetration that [Sun and Java] are receiving," said analyst Jeetu Patel, of Doculabs.
SOAP, which doesn't require any Microsoft software, is a network protocol that lets software objects developed using different languages communicate with each other. Microsoft sees it as effectively leveling the playing field between Windows and development strategies based on Java. Instead of being forced to chose one model, companies will be free to select whichever is best suited to solving the problem at hand, Microsoft reasons.
The benefit to Microsoft? The company is hoping that greater compatibility between Windows-based software and Java and Unix-based systems could lead to greater adoption of Windows 2000, the company's forthcoming operating system.
SOAP, in effect, could be bad news for Sun, IBM, Oracle, and other Java backers since it could nullify the effectiveness of proprietary "lock-in" marketing strategies.
At issue is the slugfest between Microsoft and its competitors over the programming models software developers use. Microsoft has its own programming model based on the Windows operating system, called the Component Object Model (COM). Its competitors support Enterprise JavaBeans (EJBs) and Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA), two programming models that are tightly integrated with each other.
Sun and Microsoft, which are still locked in a legal battle over Java, strive to lock big companies into their respective technologies for software development. In theory, companies that decide to build the bulk of their systems using Sun's Java technology and CORBA-based protocols, for instance, will be less likely to adopt Microsoft's COM since their developers would be less familiar with the intricacies of Windows.
In practice, most companies build and run a mix of applications built using COM, Windows, CORBA, Java, and other technologies. A protocol that gives companies greater freedom to link systems both internally and across the Net with other companies is expected to be welcomed warmly, said analysts.
Microsoft's plans for SOAP are also driven in part by some frustration at the software giant. Currently, large corporations favor Java and CORBA for large-scale applications by a 2-to-1 margin over Microsoft's COM, according to a report by Forrester Research. But most companies use CORBA-based technologies grudgingly: the technology is difficult to master and tricky to implement. Microsoft, on the other hand, has spent considerable time and energy promoting easy to use tools. An easy way to meld the two worlds could boost sales of Windows for server systems.
Currently, each programming model had its own proprietary communications protocol, so it's difficult for businesses that use EJBs and CORBA to exchange information and communicate with businesses that use COM.
SOAP would replace Microsoft's current proprietary protocol called DCOM for communication over the Internet. Because SOAP is based on XML, it's compatible with all programming models and allows businesses to easily exchange data with each other over the Internet, said analyst Mike Gilpin, of Giga Information Group.
Microsoft plans to submit the new protocol to an international standards body for approval soon. Like many software firms, Microsoft is supporting XML in its entire product line, and the company says it has no plans to hijack the Web standard.
"This is about openness and integration, and SOAP is simply a manifestation of our commitment to XML and the Web," said John Montgomery, Microsoft's product manager.
Or, according to James Utzschneider, director of Microsoft's XML-based BizTalk initiative: "Our competitors seem to claim that any time we do anything with XML, we are trying to make it proprietary. That's simply not the case. Our strategy is to adopt XML across our product line as a native wire representation for data. Open standards all the way. Period."
Analysts say SOAP will change the way businesses communicate with each other and the protocol already enjoys the support of some software firms, including Iona Technologies, which supports both EJBs and CORBA.
But Sun and IBM executives are more skeptical. In fact, Sun executives say they won't support SOAP, a strategy that does not surprise analysts. Nevertheless, Sun executives say SOAP is all Microsoft hype.
"This is another overblown announcement coming from Microsoft. It's nothing new and has no new value to what's out there," said Nancy Lee, Sun's XML senior product manager for the Java platform group.
"They're trying to create some momentum around what they're doing with Windows DNA 2000," she said, referring to Microsoft's new Web software strategy.
Scott Hebner, IBM's program director for e-business technology marketing, questions Microsoft's tactics. The effort should originate from a standards organization, not from Microsoft, said Hebner, who believes groups like the World Wide Web Consortium are starting to tackle the issue.
But Microsoft executives said they wanted to develop the basics of the technology before submitting the proposal to a standards body, where SOAP can be tweaked by other companies.
Sun's Lee said while SOAP supports XML and HTTP, the protocol, as it stands, does have some proprietary software code because it was developed mostly by Microsoft.
Lee also argued that communication between applications using simple XML and HTTP would work without the need of a new protocol.
Analysts, however, disagree. Gilpin said simple XML over HTTP works, but is of limited value. A protocol provides the guidelines to exchange information over XML. Otherwise, each business would have to discuss how to format their XML and handle interactions, he said.
Gartner Group analyst David Smith also dismisses Lee's argument that existing EJB and CORBA protocols will work. The EJB protocol works in a Java to Java environment, Smith said, "But the world isn't just Java."
Smith said SOAP will solve a compatibility issue facing businesses today.
"SOAP is not the only answer, but it's the right approach. The world wants more interoperability," Smith said. "We've never solved it. And we haven't heard from any other vendors what the alternative is."