Standards and the Vendor
June 15, 2000
The panel discussion was arranged to provide conference delegates with an opportunity to put questions to representatives from three major software vendors. These representatives were Mark Colan (IBM), David Turner (Microsoft), Simon Nicholson (Sun); the panel was chaired by Michael Maziarka (Cap Ventures).
Breaking Open Standards
The panel were asked how they thought the community should react when a vendor breaks an open standard, e.g. by providing non-standard extensions. Microsoft's Turner believed that businesses communicating with each other should be free to choose their own platform and tools--interoperability being achievable if there is complete compatibility and conformance to the wire protocols and data formats being used in the exchanges. In Turner's opinion the use (and provision) of non-standard extensions didn't matter, provided that the interoperability of data exchange wasn't affected. As an example, he cited the Micrsoft DOM extensions, which allow nodes to be retrieved using XPath expressions. This has no impact on data exchange and was therefore permissible in his view as it provided real customer benefits.
Sun's Nicholson observed that the rise in open source software meant the community could react by switching to an open, conformant implementation if a particular vendor decides to break from a given standard.
Following on from the above question, the panel were asked whether they considered conformance testing to be practical. IBM's Colan commented that the difficulty in conformance testing was related to the complexity of the specification. For some specifications, building conformance tests is a difficult task to get right. Nicholson observed that the current work at OASIS is driven by its member organizations, and hence the XML community is driving the requirement for conformance testing.
On the issue of standards proliferation, the panel were asked how itx is possible to decide which standards to support, and further whether too many standards will pose a threat to interoperability.
Picking up on the first issue, Turner outlined Micrsoft's current focus as being on supporting the key standards in the XML infrastructure. He differentiated between standards such as the XML 1.0 Specification, Namespaces, etc. and those more vertically-oriented. Turner stated that Microsoft strongly believed in supporting these core standards above others, and that this may account for apparent inconsistencies in their approach.
Addressing the second issue on the threat to interoperability, Nicholson commented that proliferation will slow down, and that there will be a rationalization of the existing efforts and standards in the vertical markets. Colan believed that there aren't too many base technical standards, but accepted that there are many vertically aligned standards emerging, and that care should be taken to not allow needless proliferation.
The panel were in full agreement about backing the W3C XML Schema efforts. Colan stated that IBM would be fully supporting the language, pointing out that there is already some support in their current parser. Turner placed Microsoft as a key driver behind the schema effort, citing their involvement with the XML Data and Document Content Description (DCD) submissions to the W3C. On the subject of XDR, a subset of XML Data currently supported by MSXML, Turner stated that this would remain unchanged for backwards-compatibility, but Microsoft would be providing full support for schemas once it reaches Recommendation.
Not all questions put to the panel related to standards, several are worthy of a brief mention.
Client vs. Server-side Processing
The panel expressed some disagreement when they were asked whether XML processing will increasingly be carried out client-side. Turner believed that the balance would swing away from the classic client-server architecture with more processing occuring on the client if possible. Colan believed that the emphasis would remain server-side, allowing the technical requirements of the client to remain low. Nicholson echoed this, pointing out the rise in Internet-enabled handheld devices with little processing power.
XML Support in Office Products
The panel were asked about the likelihood of using XML as the basic file format in their office products. Turner said that Microsoft Office is already moving in that direction, having some support for XML currently. Interestingly, Nicholson commented that there has been some interest within OASIS in establishing a group to define standards for office file formats.
In summary, the discussion proved to be very interesting. The three vendors seemed aligned in backing the standardization efforts and achieving interoperability. In a preceding presentation on standards-based software development, Norbert Mikula made several points that are useful to consider when reviewing this discussion. Firstly, he believed that companies should demonstrate their commitment by being willing to pitch in, and develop both standards and supporting tools. Secondly, Mikula stressed that openness is important: companies should publish the conformance levels of their tools, and equally highlight non-standard extensions. This enables the user to make an informed decision when building their business frameworks. Lastly, he mentioned the network effect involved in standards development--by combining the skills present across a range of organizations, everyone benefits.
All of the vendors on the panel are involved in the standardization process, although IBM is currently leading the way in its development of proof-of-concept tools: many of which have become open-source donations to the Apache XML Project. Their latest donation was SOAP4J, their Java implementation of SOAP. However, a report published this week on the relative conformance of the IBM and Microsoft SOAP implementations casts an interesting light on Microsoft's proclamation of commitment to core infrastructural standards.