Tech Industry

You call that a standard?

Robert Glushko, Berkeley professor who was involved in early XML proceedings, decries how powerful interests have distorted the standards process.

Robert Glushko has a problem with standards.

There is a clear demand from customers for products that work together based on widely used standards. But Glushko contends that the standards process is stacked to favor large tech companies, which can control and ultimately benefit most from specifications that are ratified as industry standards.

Glushko, an adjunct professor at the University of California at Berkeley, speaks from experience. As co-founder of XML company Veo Systems, Glushko was involved in early efforts to create business-to-business e-commerce standards using XML, or Extensible Markup Language, in the late 1990s. His involvement in XML led to work with the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), which was formed to promote XML-related specifications, and the United Nations' Center for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (CEFACT).

In 1999, the United Nations and OASIS joined forces to promote ebXML, which was designed to enable electronic business over the Internet, rather than over expensive proprietary networks. But as ebXML began to mature as a technical specification, another set of XML-based specifications collectively called Web services--which had the backing of IBM and Microsoft--came onto the scene. Today, Web services are more widely used than ebXML.

Glushko said his experience working on ebXML reflects how powerful interests can derail the work of well-established standards organizations. He also contends that the standards development in governmental organizations, such as the United Nations, is a very politicized process. High-minded goals, such as cheap global e-business standards, can easily be tarnished by money, power and access to powerful bureaucrats.

CNET spoke to Glushko to get his views on the state of technology standards after revelations that Microsoft paid some travel expenses of U.N. technical committee members on a CEFACT mission--a move that critics claim gave the software giant unfair influence in pressing the case for Web services over ebXML standards within the United Nations.

Q: Why have so many standards emerged for electronic commerce?
A: One of the issues here is what a standard is. That is one of the most abused words in the language and people like you (in the media) do not help by calling things standard that are not standards. Very few things are really standard. Standards come out of standards organizations, and there are very few of those in the world.

There is ANSI (American National Standards Institute), there is ISO (International Organization for Standardization), the United Nations. Things like OASIS and the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) and WS-I (Web Services Interoperability Organization) are not standards organizations. They create specifications that occasionally have some amount of consensus. But it is the marketing term to call things standard these days.

So what's an actual standards organization?
Well, a standards organization is something that is chartered to be a standards body that has some standard procedures?To me, a standard, in the best case, is some kind of specification which is developed by consensus of all the serious players and for stakeholders of some domain. (Standards development) has some open process and (the standards) are freely available and implementable. And there are not very many bodies that meet that definition.

How did you get involved with the United Nations?
They were trying to figure out how to do this kind of XML EDI (electronic data interchange) stuff, and I recommended that they work with OASIS...We talked for several months and the ebXML initiative was kicked up by the end of 1999.

Very few things are really standard. Standards come out of standards organizations, and there are very few of those in the world.
Now looking back...the key issue for us was that this was something of an arranged marriage, kind of a cross-cultural arranged marriage...CEFACT wanted a way to make (EDI) relevant in the age of the Internet and Web...(and) to be able to bring the benefits of EDI and automated business to smaller businesses primarily in developing countries. That was part of the overall mandate of CEFACT.

The XML people were saying, "We are a bunch of vendors, smaller XML companies. And it will be great if we can have some more international clout--maybe working with the standards body will give us that." So we sort of saw in each other a kind of ideal partner for what we did have. Mainly, they did not have expertise, and we did not have credibility. So that let us work together...It was one of the most heady times in my career.

This is around the same time that other XML technologies, notably Web services specifications like SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol, an XML-based communication protocol), were getting off the ground with Microsoft and IBM. What happened then?
We really tried to get every significant player involved. Microsoft, which is a member of OASIS, had not joined ebXML. And at that time, we did not know why. It turned out that they were doing SOAP and stuff in the background.

We did not know that at the time we started ebXML. But when they came out with SOAP, they said, "Well, we don?t want to join ebXML because you do not do SOAP." We said, "Look, we will make ebXML messaging compatible with SOAP; please join ebXML." We practically begged them.

We ended up making ebXML messaging compatible with SOAP, but they did not join anyway. So, it was clear that it was already starting to be some kind of unraveling of the big tent and the happy community.

So what is the net result right now? IBM and Microsoft have taken the lead on developing a lot of Web services standards beyond SOAP, including others for electronic business.
(Web services are) proprietary specifications, please.

Why do you call them proprietary specifications?
Because they are proprietary. Look at the IP (intellectual property) policies that are published on the WS-I. There are all sorts of licensing of IP. They're not royalty-free. There is a lot which is completely unclear from an IP (perspective), which means you cannot afford to implement if you're a vendor.

IBM and Microsoft have submitted to the W3C and OASIS for development many specifications that involve other companies. How is that exclusionary?
Look, the whole issue of openness is really a red herring. I can say that my process is completely open and anyone in the world can participate. But let's schedule my meetings every quarter and once in Tokyo and once in Berlin and once in Vienna and once in Vancouver and once in Washington. Effectively only the biggest players in the world can play. So, making it open, but making it infeasible to participate means it is, in effect, not open.

No one should be upset about the fact that people are trying to influence the direction of standard bodies--that is what people do.
In some sense, even if the IP policy of WS-I and ultimately the other bodies were completely open and royalty-free, this would still be a problem. By having a rival organization to the OASIS which is where (these XML e-commerce standards) started, you are raising the stakes for the participant because now (smaller) companies like mine would have to play in two places rather than one. And you quickly price the smaller player out of the standards game.

How do governmental standards bodies like the United Nations and CEFACT differ from WS-I, OASIS and W3C?
The U.N. is not really (made up) of vendors. In fact, CEFACT was for a long time hostile to the vendor participation. Countries are members of CEFACT. Delegations from various countries and governmental organizations join CEFACT to advance business standards for the world, and they (send) people as volunteer delegates from their countries.

Now think about what that means. That means clearly you are not really a volunteer delegate because someone has to pay your way to get to the meetings, right? So, occasionally it is a government body, but usually some employer would say: "I think it is worthwhile to have my employee on this standards body because maybe we can find some way to influence the process for our benefits." Everyone has a self-interest here.

So, people join these things and they are funded by companies?But the process is inherently a very slow and parliamentary and rigorous formal process. That's what gives it the credibility, because they really feel they could take the long time (necessary to reach consensus) and people are involved. But the problem is that (relying on) the participation of volunteer delegates from (different) countries does not fit the time constraints of technology companies very well. And so ultimately most companies quit that game and they go straightaway to the W3C or OASIS. That is sort of problem. CEFACT was becoming progressively irrelevant in the '90s as the Internet was happening because it did not move fast enough.

A New York Times article from February cited people who complained about Microsoft paying the travel expenses for U.N. technical committee members, which apparently gave it undue influence over the standards process. Is that common?
I think it is a brilliant idea to try to influence the direction of the one legitimate standards body out there. But the problem is (Microsoft) did it in a way that does not look good with the lights turned on. I mean, everyone tries to influence the process, everyone funds different people to participate in these activities--that is just how the game is played. Someone has to pay the salary for people who are delegates. It is just Microsoft apparently didn't try to do it in a way that is very transparent. And that is the problem.

No one should be upset about the fact that people are trying to influence the direction of standard bodies--that is what people do. It is just that the one legitimate standards body left now looks like it is being contaminated by things which do not look quite right.

What do you think that a body like the United Nations can do to cut down on this issue of influence?
An awful lot of people I worked with on ebXML on the U.N. side as well as the OASIS side were extremely hard-working people who were really committed to the vision of ebXML as the world's e-business standards.

But I think there were a couple of people who are professional standards bureaucrats, who take care of themselves more than they take care of the vision...people who would rather have little empires than advance the cause of world e-commerce and interoperable standards.