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Standards turf wars scale back

In development organizations, the intensity of vendor competition tends to politicize technology decisions. Some of us might recall that the choice between COBOL and C wasn't just about the languages; it was also based on a hunch about the future of mainframe or client/server computing. Likewise, 4GLs, including Visual Basic and PowerBuilder, confronted us with lifestyle choices about whether to accept new RAD techniques.

Today, choosing between Java and Microsoft technologies often equates to picking sides in a gang war. And now that Microsoft's .NET Framework has largely closed the technology gap with J2EE, the sociopolitical aspects of the choice have become more pronounced.

Technology choices are rarely cut-and-dried, because the accompanying baggage forces other decisions involving platform choice, the availability of packaged apps or other tools, and which development methodologies to use. The quality of the tool or the technology often winds up far down on the list of criteria.

Occasionally, vendors take the high road and agree to standards that supposedly level the playing field, allowing technical folks to make technical decisions. So, for example, when all major transaction databases supported SQL, we should have been able to choose a database based on performance, scalability, or its development or administration tools.

But it doesn't work that way. Vendors extend standards. With databases, each vendor had its own SQL dialect and varying support from platform, app and tools vendors. For de facto standards like J2EE -- which supposedly standardized component architectures and interfaces with key infrastructure functions like messaging, RPCs or load balancing - the choice of tool continued to have platform connotations because some tools supported certain app servers, OSs and databases better than others.

Whether technology gets standardized comes down to one question: Can vendors make money selling their own proprietary versions? For HTTP, HTML and newer XML technologies, the answer is no.

There is another scenario. When the power lies elsewhere, technology vendors can't call the shots. Digital ID is one example. When Microsoft first announced Passport, a component of HailStorm (now .NET My Services), the idea was to develop a technology for storing personal preferences and identifiers that would amount to a de facto standard.

But if one vendor had a lock on personal ID technology, it could tax every online transaction. That incensed companies concerned about Passport. Microsoft has claimed 165 million Passport accountholders -- if you count every licensee of the latest versions of Windows.

Predictably, the usual suspects -- Sun, Oracle and their friends -- responded by forming what initially appeared to be a rival group, the Liberty Alliance. Liberty's goal was to ensure that digital ID systems like Passport remained interoperable, and that no single vendor would gain a chokehold on this critical aspect of online commerce.

But Liberty isn't just any anti-Microsoft group. It has attracted household names like American Express, MasterCard, GM, American Airlines and United Airlines, who would use the system. Liberty also has technology players like HP, Nokia, Sony, AOL and NTT DoCoMo. But merchants and bankers weren't willing to let technology companies control the collection of customer information.

When this column went to press, Microsoft was already making positive noises about Liberty, and by the time you read this, a formal hook-up or endorsement will have probably become a done deal.

How does this pertain to development? The Liberty Alliance is the latest proof that co-existence and federation will continue to be the rules for core app development technologies. Development teams will continue to have choices, whether that includes J2EE or .NET, digital ID systems, databases or even end-user client platforms. There won't be any single standard, just groups of choices whose technologies will connect. And decisions on technology will continue to involve more than technology.

About the Author

Tony Baer is principal with onStrategies, a New York-based consulting firm, and editor of Computer Finance, a monthly journal on IT economics. He can be reached via e-mail at tbaer@tbaer.com.

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