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Web standard spat heads for showdown

An industry split over a key Web services specification could come to a head next month when companies backing the proposal meet to hammer out details.

An industry split over a key Web services specification could come to a head next month, when companies backing the proposal meet to hammer out details.

Representatives from technology giants such as IBM, Microsoft and SAP are slated to meet by teleconference on May 16 to better define the technical details surrounding the Business Process Execution Language for Web Services, or BPEL. The language is one of several proposals based on Web services that are intended to help automate how complex business software works between and within companies.

The BPEL technical committee will meet amid lingering concerns that differences between BPEL backers and a rival group led by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) could fragment the process of setting Web services standards.

Key Web services standards already in place have been made available to the industry "royalty-free." That means no company involved in developing those standards intends to charge a fee for the use of any of its own intellectual property included as part of the published standard.

Software that adheres to Web services standards should give businesses a relatively simple way to exchange information within their companies and with trading partners. The development of a royalty-free, standard method for linking Web services to complete a business process is considered a critical requirement for broad adoption of Web services.

But some industry watchers argue that the authors of BPEL need to provide specific details regarding their stance on royalties.

BPEL was submitted to the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, or OASIS, for standardization last week.

The authors of the BPEL specification--Microsoft, IBM, BEA Systems, Siebel Systems and SAP--have stated unequivocally in interviews with CNET that there would be no royalty payment associated with any products built around eventual standards. Executives at BEA, IBM and Microsoft said they expected that open-source versions of BPEL products would eventually come to market without any legal hitches.

However, a change in the latest published BPEL specification is raising new questions about royalties. While a March 20 draft publication of BPEL describes a royalty-free license, the most recent publication of the BPEL specification from March 31 leaves open the possibility of royalty fees in the future.

The document states that version 1.1 of BPEL "is not a license, either expressly or impliedly, to any intellectual property owned or controlled by BEA or IBM or Microsoft or SAP or Siebel and/or any other third party. (Companies) may have patents, patent applications, trademarks, copyrights or other intellectual property rights covering subject matter in the BPEL Specification."

Several software makers already developing products based on the BPEL specification said they will closely monitor next month's meeting for a more definitive statement on royalty issues.

At least two small companies are operating under the assumption that terms on any finalized BPEL specification will be royalty-free. Collaxa founder and CEO Edwin Khodabakchian told CNET that the software company's lawyers are investigating the matter of royalty terms. Another software developer, OpenStorm, said it will seek more information about those terms at the first meeting of the BPEL technical committee.

The levying of royalty payments on intellectual property is a contentious issue in the software business. The fear is that Web services standards will not take hold if companies demand payment from others to build products based on published standards.

The submission of BPEL to OASIS also ignited controversy because the OASIS effort bypasses similar work, endorsed by Sun Microsystems and Oracle, that is being done by the W3C.

Backers of the W3C standards process for business process automation software said the organization has a clearer policy than does OASIS regarding royalties and patents, making it a better venue for standardization.

Standards friends or foes?
What is still unclear is whether the OASIS effort will coexist or compete with the work being done at the W3C. Members of both groups said they hoped to work on complementary aspects of Web services-based business process automation.

The W3C on Wednesday sent a letter inviting the chairpersons of the OASIS BPEL technical committee to the June meeting of the W3C's Choreography working group to discuss technical coordination.

However, a W3C representative said that OASIS's lack of a formal process for communicating with the rival group raises the risk of fragmentation among standards that perform the same function.

"People are seeing the differences in the processes at OASIS and the W3C. At the end of the day, you have to make sure that Web services stuff interoperates," said Janet Daly, head of communications at the W3C.

IBM and Microsoft executives said that they chose OASIS to standardize BPEL because the organization has experience in working with other Web services standards submissions spearheaded by IBM and Microsoft, including the Web Services Security proposal now in the OASIS standardization process.

But critics contend that IBM and Microsoft's choice has more to do with politics and the balance of power than anything else.

"They went to OASIS because they want to make absolutely certain that they can control the results," said one company executive who requested anonymity. "W3C has warts and bumps, but it's more of a level playing field (for setting industry-wide standards) than what they are trying to make at OASIS."