Choose Not to Choose, Urges Neutral Borland

Neutrality is not just a good strategy; it's the only sound position to take.

I just got back from Switzerland, to use the most popular metaphor at this years Borland Conference, held late last month. The conference actually took place in Anaheim, Calif., across the street from Disneyland, but Switzerland kept coming up as the model for Borlands neutrality in the development mind share wars.

Like neutral Swiss bankers, Borland wants to be the trusted provider of the medium of exchange: When the network becomes the arena of global commerce, software development tools and skills become the hardest currency on the planet.

At a conference roundtable discussion of Web services hype and reality, I observed that neutrality is not just a good strategy; its the only technically sound position to take. Whenever Sun or Microsoft tries to position itself as being, somehow, the preferred technology partner for Web services, that positioning is self-defeating. The implication that Web services wont be platform-agnostic is enough to scare away enterprise IT builders from what might prove to be just another platform lock-in plan.

The entire premise of Web services is that applications or processes can interact by squirting streams of text back and forth across standards-based networks. Yes, that text is highly structured, in the form of SOAP messages built from XML syntax, mediated by HTTP interaction across TCP/IP connections, but its still just text. Any device that can produce and consume text streams can participate in Web services.

To be sure, the overhead of parsing those text streams (as opposed to the Vulcan mind-meld communication of proprietary binary formats) will favor devices with lots of processing power. "XML demands tons of processing; we like that," said Intel Chief e-Strategist Chris Thomas in his conference keynote speech, adding, "we plan to put a billion transistors on a chip by 2007."

Being platform-neutral at design time means being processing-intensive at run-time, so Intel has a vested interest. Even so, Thomas echoed something that Ive been saying for a long time, when he urged his developer audience, "The choice now is not to choose." Its harder to understand standards well enough to know whats common-subset technology, instead of just doing what any given tool or platform makes easy, but its the right thing to do.

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