Sun feels left out of Web services party

The company wants "founder" status in a Web services standards group created by rivals IBM and Microsoft. But it says "political shenanigans" are holding it back.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
Sun Microsystems is crying foul over a key new Web services standards group created by IBM and Microsoft, accusing its two rivals of "political shenanigans" for not inviting Sun to join as an equal partner.

The new industry consortium, called the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I), hopes to promote Web services by ensuring that software from various technology makers is compatible. Sun in February was invited to join as a "contributing" member. But the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company has ignored that invitation and is instead lobbying for more influential "founder" status, so it can sit on the group's board and help set the agenda.

Sun executives believe the company should be offered a higher status within the organization because its Java software is expected to be a popular foundation for Web services.

In an interview with CNET News.com last week, Sun CEO Scott McNealy said that if the WS-I truly wants Web services to be interoperable, Sun should be involved in the group, as "most of the Web services today are being written on Java anyhow."

"I don't think anyone's been fooled by the political shenanigans going on," McNealy added.

At stake in the WS-I is the future of technology that rivals such as Sun and Microsoft agree will reshape the Internet. Web services provide more efficient ways for companies to build software, and they let companies more easily conduct transactions. Also through Web services, consumers will be able to access their personal information online on any device and do everything from shopping and banking to checking their e-mail or calendar.

see special report: Java Jigsaw Sun is campaigning to join as a founding board member, but the WS-I's bylaws require a unanimous vote of approval from the current nine board members, and more than a dozen companies have asked to join the WS-I as founding members. The current founders, which also include BEA Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle and Intel, are discussing a way to address the companies' requests.

Standards bodies are an obscure but important feature of the technology landscape. Without them, computing companies would end up with incompatible products--the equivalent of train tracks being spaced farther apart in one country than in another, preventing a train from traveling between countries. The absence of a standard is what isolates instant messaging users into islands at AOL Time Warner, Yahoo and Microsoft, for example.

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On Web services board--'Political shenanigans'
Scott McNealy, CEO, Sun Microsystems, and CNET editors
Sources say the WS-I board has met and had informal discussions on whether Sun should be admitted as a founder. In an unofficial vote, the majority of the board approved the measure, but some, including representatives from Microsoft and IBM, voted no, sources said.

Norbert Mikula, Intel's director of Web services technology and chair of the WS-I's marketing committee, declined to comment on or confirm that the informal vote took place, but he said the organization is in continual discussions on whether to include new board members and how to create a process to include new members.

"Today, the WS-I board has wide representation from a diverse group of companies to guide WS-I activities," Mikula said. "The board is determining whether additional board seats are needed."

All about status?
The group will hold its first major meeting April 18 in San Francisco, in which more than 50 companies will plot out different working groups for building tests to ensure Web services compatibility. Current WS-I representatives say they hope Sun will join, even if the company does occupy a lesser role than Sun wants.

"If Sun joined (as a contributing member), it's half-resolved," said Bob Sutor, IBM's director of e-business standards strategy. "In that sense, Sun can get in and start working. There's plenty of leadership opportunities available. The first priority is getting the work started. We all need to get in there, roll up our sleeves, and start doing this to do that. We need them as a member."

Marge Breya, vice president of the Sun Open Net Environment (Sun ONE), the company's Web services effort, said the company will consider joining as a contributor if it has no other choice. But she believes Sun's entry as a founder is vital to the organization's success.

"I have not seen this kind of exclusionary tactic in a long time," she said. "The presence of Sun as a founder is critical for WS-I. I think it's make or break in terms of credibility for the organization."

Illuminata analyst James Governor said it's unrealistic for Sun to expect fairness in standards efforts because every company involved in a standards organization has its own business interests at heart. Microsoft and IBM both battle Sun in the market for software that allows companies to build Web sites. Because Microsoft and IBM initially created the WS-I, they can choose who can join as a founding board member, he said.

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One-on-one with Scott McNealy
Scott McNealy, CEO, Sun Microsystems, and CNET editors
"There are definitely some within IBM and Microsoft that feel Sun has been somewhat obstructive," Governor said. "So it is no surprise that they would be wary of giving Sun too much control, which bringing it on the board would do."

Sun's own history with industrywide initiatives is checkered. The company recently hammered out a deal with the Apache Software Foundation to allow open-source implementations of Java standards. "That shows that Sun is anxious to drive value in the industry and that it is not all about control and dominance," Governor said.

But in 1999, Sun backpedaled from a plan to establish Java as an industry standard. The company said it planned to hand over control of Java to the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA). But Sun ultimately reversed that plan when it sensed it would lose control of Java, analysts said.

Instead, Sun appointed itself "steward" of the Java Community Process, which lets other companies have a voice in the technology's future but still ensures a dominant role for Sun.

Microsoft and IBM were two of the companies that pushed hardest for Java standardization.

Bad blood
Sun and Microsoft have a long history of bad blood, especially over the Java programming language. Sun sued Microsoft in 1997, charging that the company tried to add Windows-specific extensions to Java that undermined the software's key promise of universality. The companies settled the suit in January 2001.

But Sun sued Microsoft again last month, piggybacking on the Justice Department's finding that Microsoft violated antitrust law. Sun's current lawsuit is much broader than the earlier suit and other antitrust cases against Microsoft.

Earlier this year, Sun offered to give IBM and Microsoft founder status in the Liberty Alliance Project, a competitor to Microsoft's Passport technology, which seeks to standardize and simplify digital identity processes such as signing on to a Web site. Microsoft said it might join Liberty if it functioned as something other than a Microsoft-bashing club. But Sun executives continued to lambaste Passport.

Gartner analyst Daryl Plummer said Sun needs to join the WS-I because customers could get hurt in the long run if it doesn't.

"Sun should join any way they can get in, and IBM and Microsoft should loosen up a bit and strongly consider them being a board member," Plummer said. "Sun needs to be seen as a member of the community and (show that it) can play well within the community. Long term, it will hurt the customer because it is not assured if Sun's systems and strategies will be taken into account in WS-I policies."