The future: Sun pins hopes on Web services
By Wylie Wong
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
March 28, 2002, 4:00 a.m. PT
On the surface, it sounded impressive: Sun Microsystems was heading a coalition called the Liberty Alliance Project to thwart Microsoft in the promising consumer Web services market, backed by such diverse powerhouses as AOL Time Warner, United Airlines, General Motors and Visa.
But to many of those within the industry, the announcement last year was little more than a feeble stalling tactic aimed at buying time for Sun to catch up with Microsoft's .Net
strategy, a marketing and technology juggernaut that has largely defined the current industry rhetoric over Web services.
Now, the company is beginning to fill in the Liberty initiative's many blanks. In the latest effort to add substance to the alliance's hype, Sun this month announced a new bundle of its hardware and Java-powered software that allows companies to build security systems supporting Liberty's goal of enabling a single electronic sign-on for services, sites and accounts on the Web.
The moves underscore Sun's commitment to grow its business and expand revenue from its Java programming language, which is key to the company's Web services strategy. The efforts also indicate how seriously Sun views Microsoft as a major threat in this important new market, aiming to create a universal online registration and identity system that rivals the Passport authentication technology at the heart of .Net.
"It will be hard for Sun to steal back mind share, but it makes sense for Sun to pursue Liberty aggressively," Illuminata analyst James Governor said. "It's a chance for Sun to get back in the game and start leading."
Regardless of the odds, it is important for Sun to go beyond empty talk and take tangible measures as a way of restoring confidence in the company's long-term Web services plans. With no defined technology behind its initiative, Liberty was not taken seriously at first and did little to dispel the industry perception that Sun views software as a stepchild business.
Sun admitted that it has lagged behind IBM and Microsoft in forging a Web services strategy for its family of software development tools and e-business software. But the
company, perhaps persuaded by rising frustration on the part of Java licensees over vague plans and constant nay-saying about its rivals' efforts, is taking concrete steps on many fronts in the Web services market.
For example, with the help of Oracle, Cisco Systems and seven others, Sun recently announced it has submitted a new XML (Extensible Markup Language) specification to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that aims to ensure Web transactions happen in the right order, which is vital for a Web service to work.
XML is a technology standard that lies at the heart of Web services, for it essentially erases issues of compatibility among different computer systems. Although Sun was one of the creators of XML, the company has allowed Microsoft and IBM to take charge in developing Web services standards based on the technology--but it is determined to regain a leadership role.
"If you read most of the articles out there, you'd think Web services is from some brilliant guy from IBM or Microsoft who has a thought and it becomes a standard by breakfast time," said Simon Phipps, Sun's chief technology evangelist. "There are actually plenty of other companies out there doing deep thought and advancing XML."
For the past two years, Sun has largely stayed on the sidelines as IBM and Microsoft put aside their competitive differences to spearhead the industry's efforts to build the standards needed for Web services to work.
While Sun has backed each standards effort by Microsoft and IBM, the company has initially been slow to embrace their work. And Sun still has not joined the tandem's latest effort--an industry consortium called the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I)--that was formed to teach businesses how to build compatible Web services.
Sun's refusal to participate has provided ammunition for its rivals, even leading Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates to chastise Sun in public statements. The software giant and IBM have in turn refused to join Liberty, though Microsoft executives say they will consider joining if the alliance stops its anti-Microsoft crusade.
Sun has blamed Microsoft and IBM for its exclusion from the WS-I while at the same time ignoring an open invitation to join. Sun executives say they want to join the coalition but feel that Microsoft and IBM sought to publicly humiliate the company by shutting it out of the group's planning process until only days before its launch.
Today, Sun is campaigning to join the group as a founding
member so it can help set the group's agenda, but that would require unanimous approval by the board--which includes IBM and Microsoft. The company, originally invited to join as a lower-level contributing member, is still awaiting word from the organization.
Analysts and others in the industry question whether Sun's attempts to cooperate with its rivals, let alone take a lead on Web services, are too little and too late.
"Microsoft and IBM are coming up with a fair amount of the major specifications out there," said Shawn Willett, an analyst at Current Analysis. "Sun hasn't taken the lead in as many things as IBM and Microsoft."
At the same time, analysts say Sun needs to stop sniping at other companies and cooperate more for the good of the entire industry.
"They better wake up to the fact that they need to partner with people and not by saying bad things about Microsoft and IBM," Governor said. "It doesn't make people want to partner with them. There are times when being a maverick is not beneficial, and the creation of standards is possibly one of them."
Rather than taking a leadership role, Sun may have a better chance to leave a mark on Web services standards in the security area through Liberty. "Security will be the essential underpinning for Web services, and at the moment, no one has done a good job building standards," Governor said.
Moreover, analysts say Sun's new XML specification--called the XML Pipeline Definition Language--is not as significant as previous work by IBM and Microsoft but does solve an important problem. It helps string together the different steps in a transaction to make sure an XML message or document is received and processed in the right order, said Eve Maler, Sun's XML standards architect.
"There's a valid need for this," said analyst Uttam Narsu of Giga Information Group. "But there's so much activity going around XML today that it's just another XML specification."
Narsu said Sun's efforts to be a leader in Web services standards is noble but might not be possible. The company's energies are already consumed with shepherding the Java standard through the Java Community Process (JCP), a time-consuming endeavor.
"Sun does have people on the W3C and is participating in general," Narsu said, "but they have their hands full with the JCP and Java, so it's difficult to say, 'We will be a big thought leader in XML as well.' You can't do everything at once--and they don't have the resources of an IBM or Microsoft."
Even if Sun did have those resources, it would face an uphill battle at every juncture against its rivals at this stage. Every company involved in a standards organization has its own proprietary interests at heart, and Microsoft and IBM are no exceptions.
"Standards are all about politics. No one has a right to sit on every standards body," Governor said. "Standards are about getting stuff done and finding the right partners to make things happen."
CNET's David Berlind contributed to this report.