When IBM launched its web services platform last week, the company made sure to note that its approach was more standards-based and open than Microsofts .Net strategy, which is based on Windows products.
It was the first shot fired in what could easily be dismissed as just the latest marketing war between two software behemoths. After all, Bill Gates has spent the past year proclaiming Microsofts intent to make the .Net platform the launching point for Web services.
But while Microsofts .Net might seem an easy target, IBMs real adversaries on the Web services front are more likely such non-Microsoft competitors as BEA Systems, Oracle and Sun Microsystems, which are emerging as Web middleware powerhouses in their own right.
"The next wave is about driving the power of the Net into businesses . . . And thats all about integrating back-end systems with the Internet and making it work together," said Bruce Lowry, a spokesman at Novell, which has its own Web services aspirations with its OneNet initiative.
To enable such integration, a vendor must supply a key piece of middleware, known as the application server, with a set of related technologies. Enter IBM, which last week announced it is integrating its WebSphere Application Server with the flexible and comprehensive tagging language, eXtensible Markup Language (XML); the Universal Description, Discovery and Integration standard for directories of services; and the Web Services Description Language for defining services to inquirers over the Web.
These technologies are used to tie together both existing and new business applications, and link them to the Web in a way that was not possible or was too costly to implement in the past because it would have required custom integration. With the new standards and technologies, the promise is that it will be easier for an existing business to offer specific services — such as verifying credit, placing orders or checking inventory — to its customers, business partners and suppliers on the Web.
In February, Microsoft announced some specifics of its .Net strategy based on XML integration, with the Simple Object Access Protocol called on to access modules of software over a network using XML data. IBM will implement many of the same XML standards and formats with the June 30 release of WebSphere 4.0.
Microsoft was unavailable to comment for this story.
While much early business activity consisted of offering company information, product catalogs and ordering systems, "the real value is in integration and transaction," said Scott Hebner, IBMs director of marketing for WebSphere. "We are already delivering, and I would say Microsoft is four years behind."
But IBM may just be engaging in a war of words, with some observers saying IBMs supposed lead is exaggerated. Daryl Plummer, Java and development tools analyst at Gartner, said IBM and Microsoft were about even at this stage.
Microsoft is expected to unveil its .Net tool kit today. It will include new versions of Enterprise Architect and Enterprise Developer tools and will be generally available after June 17.
"Theres plenty of competition ahead," said Ted Schadler, an analyst at Forrester Research.
IDC estimates that business-to-business user-based and machine-to-machine-based Web services over the Internet will be a $50 billion industry within four years, as opposed to the browser-based content serving that goes on today. At the same time, the number of vendors that can provide a set of integrated tools and middleware services is shrinking.
"The price of entry to this competition keeps going up," said Gary Voight, president of middleware vendor Software AG.
Bidding for its share of that business is database vendor Oracle, with an XML-supporting Oracle9i database, tools and its own application suite. Then theres BEA, with a leading Java application server, Web-Logic, which is often described as WebSpheres chief competition. Sun is also in the game with its iPlanet Application Server and iPlanet Directory server.
For its part, IBM said it was adding XML Extender to its DB2 7.2 relational database so it could recognize and store data from XML files, allowing DB2 to function with XML-based Web services. IBM is also adding its dominant message-passing middleware, MQ Series, to the WebSphere package to let it handle XML messaging between applications.
Randy Heffner, an analyst at Giga Information Group, said he would not describe IBMs announcement as "headlines news."
"This all sounds like an executive at IBM woke up and said Web ser-vices are the next big thing. So he went around to all the groups and said, Whats your Web services story? " Heffner said.
IBMs competitors are quick to agree. Wes Wasson, vice president of product marketing at the Sun/Netscape iPlanet division, said that BEA, IBM, Microsoft and Sun support many of the same services standards, except Microsoft does not offer Java capabilities.
"Over the next 12 months, thats where the build-out will be — adding that contextual level, smart services that know who the users are and where they are," Wasson said. Both IBM and Sun will try to differentiate themselves in that arena.
And thats when this war of words might actually become a real technology battle.