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July 15,2000

A Few Kind Words About Microsoft

XML plays peacemaker between Java and proprietary languages

By David F. Carr

It's rare that anyone from Sun Microsystems gives Microsoft credit for anything. But here's John Bosak, a Sun distinguished engineer who led the World Wide Web Consortium committee that created the original XML specifications, talking about the technology's current momentum: "The biggest surprise here was Microsoft's adoption of this. Because XML is only partly a technical thing. It also has a social agenda, inherited from SGML, not to be held hostage to any particular application platform. So to see Microsoft embrace that--well, amazed is not too strong a word. But I'd have to say that's what probably kick-started it back in '97." OK, so you can detect certain undercurrents even in that statement. But Bosak isn't one of Sun's hatchet men. He gives Gates & Co. credit for assigning smart people to work on XML-related efforts.

Actually, Microsoft is probably more closely associated with XML than Sun is, despite Bosak's work. Sun engineers have been saying for years that Java and XML were complementary technologies, not competitors. One is focused on data, while the other governs application behavior. But I wonder if there wasn't a lack of enthusiasm further up at Sun to back anything with which Microsoft was involved. Besides, Sun has been trying to sell a Java platform that will liberate applications from operating systems, particularly Microsoft's. XML is another attempt to eliminate platform dependence--including dependence on Java. Given the choice, Sun would prefer a world of tightly wound Java objects to loosely bound systems based on XML document exchange.

Even if that's correct, by now irrational prejudice has given way to a pragmatic recognition of XML's importance.

So Sun put Bosak center stage with Java inventor James Gosling at JavaOne. Gosling says there's "sort of a yin-yang thing" between his brainchild and XML, meaning that it often helps to have a clear separation between the behavior of a programming object and the data it acts upon. "The whole issue of where to draw the boundaries is one of the highest arts in all of programming," he says.

Bosak thinks it's essential to define industry-specific XML vocabularies, a goal he has pursued as a founder of OASIS. However, he admits that not everyone agrees. With the right transformation technologies (something that has improved very rapidly over the past decade, thanks to enterprise application integration), many technologists figure it shouldn't be a problem to translate between two differently structured XML purchase-order formats, for example.

"I am of the school of thought that either there's a round-trip mapping that's possible between two documents or there's not," Bosak says. If not, you're losing information with every translation, he points out. "And if a transformation is possible, why do we have two versions?" Could XML be subverted by proprietary extensions? The issues aren't really the same as with Java, because XML was designed to be extended freely. Occasionally, someone warns that Microsoft will be able to wield undue influence by winning a big market share with its (still unreleased) BizTalk Server, or by tying Microsoft products to XML-inspired technologies such as its SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) proposal. But it's premature to worry about that. And both IBM and Sun have recognized the potential of SOAP, agreeing to work on refining the submission to the Internet Engineering Task Force.

Bosak does worry about proprietary threats, "even though XML, by its nature, eliminates maybe half the danger." Often, the vendors have development resources that the constituencies for these technologies lack, "so there's a strong incentive to take an off-the-shelf solution if one's available," he says.

The biggest threat is not necessarily from Microsoft, Bosak says, but from up-and-coming vendors that have been merrily creating XML languages to solve problems for which no formal standards exist. Many e-commerce vendors are creating suites of interdependent XML languages. Even though they may declare their XML specifications open, they can capture a lead of 18 months or more from having developed products designed to work with those data formats, Bosak says. "Once you accept that solution, you are in fact locked into that. I'm looking at the difference between proprietarization in a technical sense vs. proprietarization in a practical sense."