Web Services: IBM Gets It

IBM learned the hard way that open standards is the only strategy.

Its hard to get excited about middleware; harder still about a middleware architecture. So when IBM rolled out its Web services strategy earlier this month, we reached for an extra strong cup of coffee. But we have to admit, theres more to like than at first meets the eye in IBMs approach to tying together systems and data for the purpose of e-business. Big Blues strategy (for which, unexpectedly, there is no formal name or acronym) compares favorably with competing middleware schemes such as Microsofts .Net and Sun ONE. All the blueprints include prominent support of Extensible Markup Language; SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol); and Universal Description, Discovery and Integration, but beyond those common denominators, IBM shows an unmistakably greater sense of openness and customer-centricity.

A thorough point-by-point comparison of the three approaches would take pages, but consider: Microsoft supports SOAP but only on its platforms and with "approved" languages. Sun supports SOAP, too, as long as Java comes with it. With IBM, customers can use the combination of language, operating system and hardware that makes sense for them, not the one that furthers the platform ambitions of their supplier.

In general, IBM "gets it" when it comes to multivendor interoperability on the Web. And although Linux was not part of IBMs Web services announcement, its worth noting that IBM has a significant Linux strategy and Microsoft and Sun do not.

Microsoft and Sun still see standards architectures as weapons to combat industry rivals, with customer lock-in as the ultimate prize. IBM programmers, meanwhile, labor on such open-systems projects as a SOAP tool kit for Apache.

It might seem odd for the industrys largest company, with $88 billion in revenue, to have the most customer-centered message, but its true. Is IBM doing the right thing just because it is a benign company with the user communitys best interests at heart? Were not that naive. It was IBMs near-death experience of the early 90s that has produced a company with enough humility to take putting the customer first seriously.

IBM wrote the book on how to fail through proprietary architectures. A key chapter in this tragedy is Systems Application Architecture, by which IBM tried pouring glue on its incompatible proprietary systems. Now, Sun and Microsoft look like they are trying to do something similar with their Web middleware strategies. IBM learned the hard way that embracing open, interoperable standards is not just a good strategy—its the only strategy. We wonder how long it will take for Microsoft and Sun to learn the same lesson.