Sidebar-The Microsoft Effect
January 26, 2000
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For better or worse, by dint of their unique position in the industry, Microsoft's actions carry more weight than those of other software companies. As the godfather of the business, what effect has Microsoft had on the development of schema frameworks and repositories?
If nothing else, Microsoft's published schemas for the BizTalk server identify requirements and areas of application, and in the end, galvanize support for the expedited standards work. According to Laura Walker, Executive Director of OASIS, BizTalk has promoted OASIS involvement from major players, including IBM and Sun.
The relationship between BizTalk and XML.org is complex and complementary. Microsoft is a member of OASIS. Although not a sponsor of XML.org, they have been supportive of it and say that they will take the OASIS TC Registry & Repository specification to use in BizTalk when it is stable. Laura Walker stresses that XML.org is not competitive with BizTalk and that the market will determine which effort is successful. She adds that only a vendor-neutral resource is viable over the long-term, but that Microsoft should be doing exactly what it is doing.
Who's In Charge Here?
So what is the role of the BizTalk advisory committee? The BizTalk Philosophy reads as follows:
" www.biztalk.org was set up with a built-in watchdog group called the Steering Committee in order to prevent anyone from subverting the BizTalk Framework or XML in proprietary ways that benefit one vendor or group of customers more than another. The purpose of the BizTalk Steering committee is to provide the oversight and guidance that will make the BizTalk Server, the BizTalk Framework and www.biztalk.org an important part of your IT strategy.
The steering committee isn't a standards body though. There are no working groups or subcommittees, and steering committee members have no more power to influence the evolution of the BizTalk Framework than any other member or partner. The purpose of the steering committee is to provide the guidance and insight to make www.biztalk.org an open and level playing field.
The steering committee is a hand-selected group of standards bodies, government agencies, premier software vendors and select corporate customers. This group was chosen for their experience, insight, interest and commitment to the BizTalk Framework. Steering committee representatives review proposed changes to specifications earlier than they are posted to the www.biztalk.org site. This preview step assures Microsoft that planned changes make sense and don't violate the core principals of the initiative. The changes that are reviewed are based on feedback gathered at the web site and via e-mail - make [sic]"
The need for a watchdog to prevent subversion is best read, I believe, tongue in cheek. Nevertheless, setting up a focus group for the development of a Microsoft product, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It's only bad if it's conflated with the real standards process. While Dan Rogers (Program Manager of www.biztalk.org) recognizes the difference between a Microsoft initiative and a standards effort, apparently there is still some confusion on this point within his company.
In a press release dated January 18, 2000, a portal vendor claimed that it is "compliant with the BizTalk 1.0 specification." In the same release, Davide Vigano, director of healthcare and financial services at Microsoft, reinforces the impression that BizTalk is a standard stating: "By adopting BackOffice and BizTalk, [the vendor] is providing their customers with a powerful, standards-based mechanism for achieving XML-based interoperability across any application and OS. We applaud their efforts and commitment to BizTalk." [my emphasis]
It is a Hobbesian ocean in which we swim, and the smaller fish are too eager to recognize the movements of the larger animals. Microsoft makes an easy target for criticism that would not be slung at lesser beasts. Still, there are some concerns about BizTalk in addition to the standards body masquerade. Early on, it was reported that posting to the site required giving copyright over the schema to Microsoft. There is no such notice on the site today, but many of the posted schemas carry either sole Microsoft copyright (an SMS schema) or joint copyright between Microsoft and the posting entity (Microsoft and iSOFT). Copyright on the schemas posted by the OAG are held solely by the OAG.
This is all grist for the conspiracy mill, since in a world without proprietary data formats, control of schemas may be the last gasp of the information controllers. While the spirit of BizTalk is not altruistic, it is also not nefarious. Instead of seeing Microsoft's move as a grab for dictatorial powers, perhaps we should see it as recognition of a power vacuum and an attempt to preempt anyone else's control.
How will it all come out? It is useful to recall that it has been two years since Microsoft unveiled the original XML-Data "specification" which was to be the schema language to replace DTDs. Many of the arguments for BizTalk echo the case for XML-Data: the industry needs it, Microsoft will publish and distribute it freely, product development depends on it, it is ready to use, and the implementation timeframe can't wait for market forces or standards organizations. In fact, the Release 1.0 XML-Data was no more than an alpha version (just as BizTalk "1.0" is no more than an alpha version). If the market responds as it did to the urgency of XML-Data, the bulk of implementations will ultimately conform to a specification written in an open, collaborative, consensus-driven standards development process, to which Microsoft will contribute.