A heavy-weight prize fight has broken out between the backers of competing standards to allow inter-business communication based on the XML protocol.
In the red corner, the Electronic Business XML Initiative announced the imminent delivery of the core technical infrastructure of ebXML this week.
Backed by the United Nations e-business body CEFACT and non-profit standards body Oasis, the initiative is designed to be the basis of a standards-based network for global trading. The venture is endorsed by Sun Microsystems, with the participation of Cisco, IBM, Fujitsu and a host of smaller companies.
In the blue corner stands Microsoft's BizTalk 2000 server. The core of the project is based on Framework 2.0, which specifies how businesses should implement XML and the SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) standard agreed by Microsoft and IBM.
Both solutions hope to allow businesses to share documents using the XML standard, and enable ebusiness applications such as e-marketplaces.
BizTalk 2000 has the advantage that it will hit the market sooner. It is already live with 50 companies, and is scheduled to be available from Jan 2001. ebXML hardly has a specification, let alone live products.
For Will Zachmann, vice president of the Meta Group, it is not even a contest. "There are minutes to play, and the Sun team are eight-nil down," he said. "The IBM/Microsoft axis is clearly the one that has the most traction.
"There could be an argument that the ebXML standard has more theoretical elegance, with a framework based on MIME types," said Zachmann. "But in terms of practical utility I think the Microsoft system, based on a SOAP and UDDI stack, is clearly going to kick ass."
While IBM is nominally a backer of the ebXML standard, it's putting its weight behind BizTalk, he said, reviving the Microsoft/Big Blue alliance which has been instrumental in establishing many standards.
"Whenever you have a standard that amounted to anything, it is because it has been driven through by someone. ebXML is being written by a committee, and committees never produce standards that are worth anything," said Zachmann.
J P Morgenthal, chief technology officer at XMLSolutions, has been deeply involved in the development of ebXML. He denied that Microsoft product makes ebXML obsolete. "ebXML is a real global standard," he said. "What Microsoft is offering is just a product using a set of popular specifications.
"UDDI doesn't provide one tenth of the functionality that ebXML does," he continued. "Microsoft may get their platform implemented, but I think they'll find that there will be a lot of products that don't talk to it."
The first ebXML products could be out by as early as the middle of 2001, he said.