Taking Their Best Shot

In a world where applications are becoming services, the layer of software that supports those services occupies some valuable real estate.

In a world where applications are becoming services, the layer of software that supports those services occupies some valuable real estate. Microsoft is trying to leverage its desktop dominance to establish its .Net services platform as a kind of operating system for the new era, but it faces plenty of competition, including platform plays by IBM and Sun Microsystems. And with companies such as Oracle and BEA Systems targeting the Web middleware market as well with their own application servers, the platform wars are still something of a free-for-all.

IBM announced in May that its WebSphere 4.0, due June 30, will support the eXtensible Markup Language; Universal Description, Discovery and Integration; and Web Services Definition Language standards, enabling it to link applications via the Web without extensive integration work. "WebSphere has technology that approaches the breadth of what Microsoft is doing, which is the strength of .Net," said Rob Enderle, a research fellow at Giga Information Group. IBM leads Microsoft in getting products to market, but has encountered compatibility problems with products from its Lotus Development unit.

Sun wants the world to run on Java standards, including the Java 2 Enterprise Edition package of Java technologies embraced by Oracle and other enterprise application vendors, but its Sun Open Net Environment, called Sun ONE, is narrower in scope than .Net or WebSphere. "Its largely a marketing push around the core technologies," Enderle said. "Comparing Sun ONE to IBM and Microsoft is like comparing an engine maker to a car company." Forcing users to buy from multiple vendors to get a complete Web services platform could limit the Sun initiatives appeal, he said.

Analysts said its too early to pick a winner, but the competitors are trash-talking and posturing the way software companies often carry on when large sums of money are at stake. "IBM talks about WebSphere, but the reality now is the WebSphere logo," said John Magee, senior marketing director for Oracle9i products at Oracle.

Everyone, of course, dogs Microsoft for its proprietary technology, but everyone recognizes that starting out with a grip on the desktop is a powerful opening position.