WS-I to expand board, Sun peeks through

An industry consortium cofounded by Microsoft Corp. and IBM Corp. said Wednesday that it plans to appoint two new members to its board, one of which could be Microsoft rival Sun Microsystems Inc. This could pave the way for the consortium to develop Web services standards that are embraced by software rivals.

The WS-I, short for the Web Services Interoperability Organization, was created in February to develop a set of standard testing tools and development blueprints that, when used by a software vendor, would ensure that its Web-based software applications would interoperate with WS I-compliant products from other vendors.

During a meeting Monday, the nine-member board that heads the WS-I unanimously approved the creation of a working group that will propose a method for appointing two new members to the board. Board members are responsible for ultimately approving or denying standards devised by member companies.

Sun is not yet a member of the consortium, but has said in the past it would join if it were given a seat on the board.

Speaking at a Sun software event Wednesday, Jonathan Schwartz, Sun’s executive vice president in charge of software, reiterated the company’s stance. “We would love to join WS-I as a board member,” he said.

A company representative said Sun would not comment on the consortium’s latest effort to elect two new board members.

Under the current proposal, the new board members would join for a two-year term, said Norbert H. Mikula, vice chair of the WS-I and director of Web services technology with Intel Corp.’s research lab. The current members of the board do not have term limits, and wouldn’t be subject to term limits in the future, he said.

“The two-year term is a good practice in a sense that membership needs to be continuously polled about who is on the board,” Mikula said.

Tom Glover, IBM’s program manager for Web services standards and chair of the WS-I board, will chair the working group. All WS-I members are eligible to join, Mikula said. Sun would have to join the group to be considered for a board seat.

Core to the WS-I’s goal is standardizing the various technologies being developed by software makers, including Microsoft, Sun and IBM, that will facilitate a new class of applications and services that can be delivered over the Internet.

Most vendors embrace standards that are considered vital to Web services, including XML (Extensible Markup Language), SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) and WSDL (Web Services Description Language). But many vendors use different versions and implementations of these technologies, making their respective products incompatible with those from competitors.

While the WS-I’s membership has continued to grow since it was founded, showing a momentum toward standardization, Sun has yet to join the group. Sun is considered a leader in the development of Web services with its Java technology. However, the absence of the Santa Clara, California, company in the WS-I has led to concerns that as Web services continues to evolve, the technology will diverge, said Mike Gilpin, research fellow with Giga Information Group Inc.

“(Interoperability) might happen anyway, but it will be a lot easier if Sun is rowing in the same direction and not counter to that objective,” he said.

Still, Microsoft has starkly opposed Sun’s demands that it be given a board seat in order to join the group. Microsoft’s .Net platform competes directly against Java. During remedy hearings in Microsoft’s antitrust case, attorneys for the states suing Microsoft read from an e-mail in which Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates made reference to the company’s stance on Sun’s participation in the WS-I.

“I can live with this if we have the positioning clearly in our favor,” Gates wrote, according to court transcripts from May 7. And “in particular, Sun not being one of the movers/announcers/founding member.”

Early signs have already emerged that point to the potential rift that could occur if Sun’s Web services efforts remain separate from others in the industry, Gilpin said. On Friday, Sun proposed a security standard for Web services that resembles a separate standard that is being drafted by Microsoft and IBM, called WS-Security.

“Sun didn’t position it as being competitive to WS-Security but when you looked at it in detail you saw that in fact there were some areas where it could potentially overlap,” Gilpin said.

There is still a long way to go before two more members will be able to sit on the WS-I board, Mikula noted. The proposal that will be drafted by the working group will ultimately have to win approval from the board. If it is approved, the more than 100 members of WS-I will then have to nominate and elect the two new board members.

“What’s important to understand is that there is quite a long list of companies that have expressed an interest in becoming a member of the board,” Mikula said. So far 11 companies besides Sun are on that list.

“Once the bylaws change to induct new board members, I’m sure that many other companies will want to run,” he said. “The idea is that all WS-I members will have an opportunity to run.”