It Starts with Standards: Laying Groundwork for the Next Generation of Innovation

BERLIN, March 5, 2002 — In the high-tech world, a couple of years can be a lifetime. Consider XML. Known only as a promising new Web programming language just a couple of years ago, eXtensible Markup Language is now rapidly maturing to the point where it’s living up to its potential. Interoperability across systems, applications and programming languages isn’t just possible, it’s becoming pervasive.

When it comes to technology, if there are two ways of doing something, there’s a good chance one company will do it one way and another will do it the other way. And while both may be technically correct, those tools will never work together.

On the road to true interoperability, these factors pose a problem. Fortunately for the high-tech industry, companies have by and large focused on cooperating in pursuit of standards and specifications that seek to define a common method for handling everyday computing, networking, information-sharing and connectivity issues.

Companies across the industry have recognized and supported the tremendous potential of XML systems to unify the computing landscape. By fostering dialog and recognizing the best ideas from companies across the high-tech spectrum, the process of ratifying proposed specifications into industry standards is slowly bringing the entire high-tech industry together. If this trend continues, the next generation of technologies can take shape in an interoperable world.

To move this effort forward, Microsoft is teaming with a variety of companies — within and without the high-tech field — to build a foundation of standards and agreed-upon specifications. The evolution of the Internet that began with HTML and gave rise to XML and SOAP continues today through widely adopted programming languages and standards such as C#, UDDI, SALT, SIP, WSDL, and the latest entrant, XBRL, which have been established through extensive industry cooperation that builds on past accomplishments to enable future innovations.

Dialects of Interoperability

Microsoft’s own adoption this week of the eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL) in reporting the company’s financial information illustrates how standardized approaches are increasingly being used to bridge the gap between differing platforms and systems, and to provide increased interoperability of the information itself.

XBRL extends the capabilities of XML through “tags” that describe and identify each line item in a company’s financial statements, making it easier to access and analyze that information. The result is an XML “dialect” that closely maps to the specific needs of the financial industry. Tagging each item increases uniformity in financial information across geographies and industries, which can be rendered once in an XBRL document, then delivered and analyzed in whatever form is needed.

The goal of the XBRL Consortium is to allow investors and analysts to compare financial information much more objectively and with greater accuracy than through traditional methods, which often require an extensive search through volumes of published statements that may or may not classify the information in the same way. XBRL is expected to help transcend not only the varying technology environments of the workers who use this type of information, but also to present the information itself more uniformly.

An industry standard such as XBRL illustrates how the best ideas and systems can be brought together for greater efficiency and interoperability, says Christopher Kurt, group program manager for Web services at Microsoft — a concept that is putting companies across the high-tech spectrum on the same page.

“Companies today are recognizing and supporting the tremendous potential of XML systems to unify the computing landscape,” Kurt says. “If this trend continues, the next generation of technologies can truly take shape in an interoperable world.”

But the standards process hasn’t always lived up to its altruistic intentions, Kurt acknowledges. “The standards process typically involves a lot of negotiation and compromise to address multiple goals, and in those negotiations, features and options are often introduced to specifications that may not be needed,” he says.

According to Kurt, some of these features may be underdefined, or may simply be redundant, duplicating functionality already in place. This can occur for trivial aspects of the specifications or very complex features. “And to the extent that it occurs, while it may be good for moving specifications forward and reaching broad agreement, it doesn’t really help customers in the long run, and it doesn’t help us build interoperable solutions.”

The Standards Integrator

Enter the new Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I). Launched in February, WS-I aims to cut through some of the clutter and help the industry and its numerous standards bodies focus on more precisely defining protocols to enable the true interoperability that Web services will require.

“Ideally it should be possible to buy Web services technology from two vendors and have it work together out of the box,” Kurt says. “But the way specifications are written today, there’s not enough guidance for that to happen naturally. They’re not precise enough. What WS-I aims to do is work across all of the standards organizations to help the industry get there as quickly as we can.”

Kurt says that WS-I will function as a standards integrator, a touchpoint among all of the standards organizations that provides feedback about how the standards can be improved, which practices the industry is gravitating toward, which have proven most interoperable, and new requirements that need to be addressed.

“Some of the industry organizations are structured to have very strong internal consistency in what they do,” he says. “But others are structured in such a way that it generally ensures they won’t have consistency, and none of them are really structured to check their work with that of other organizations. WS-I provides a view across the dynamic array of standards organizations to help our customers figure out how all of these standards are going to work together.”

It’s an idea that apparently has many supporters in the high-tech community. In just a few weeks, WS-I has over 50 members, and has received requests from more than 400 additional companies around the world interested in participating.

Many feel that WS-I represents the best of what the standards movement has to offer — a truly egalitarian, democratic and community-oriented approach to clearing the hurdles along the path to interoperability.

The New Face of High Tech

Such efforts make for some strange bedfellows. Bitter industry rivals have come together through standards processes, putting aside their differences long enough to help the industry as a whole gain a foothold.

The effort to establish standards around Web services predates the rise of XML. One successful specification effort — in which Microsoft and other industry leaders took the initiative — began nearly two years ago. The Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI) specification for locating Web services was born out of the need to help developers “discover” Web services in an efficient way. It was a fundamental need for the vision to move forward, and, after initial efforts by Microsoft, IBM and Ariba, the industry rallied around UDDI to make it a success.

“UDDI is a Web service for locating Web services,” Kurt says. “It provides both a directory and a protocol whereby companies can publish the availability of their Web services and describe them very precisely, and on the reverse side, they can also locate Web services that may be needed by searching along those very precise parameters.”

Once located, UDDI allows developers to pull Web services into a development environment such as Microsoft Visual Studio .NET and easily incorporate them into their own Web services and applications. As such, it solves the most basic need for getting the Web services movement off the ground: allowing people to find Web services so they can be used.

But beyond its inherent usefulness, according to Kurt, UDDI serves as an example of a specification or standards effort that works as it should. Hundreds of companies worldwide have become members, and the specification has been adopted so widely that it is now a de-facto standard. But what makes it a truly successful specification in terms of Web services is its transparency.

“UDDI has one public node that is run by Microsoft using all Microsoft technologies such as the .NET Framework, and written in C#,” Kurt says. “Meanwhile, IBM has one written in Java on WebSphere. To the byte, our goal is for those Web services to respond in exactly the same way, so that nobody would ever know the specifics of the underlying technology. And that’s really how a Web service is supposed to be implemented.”

The Natural Next-Generation Interface

If UDDI is achieving seamless and transparent interoperability, other standards efforts are succeeding for other reasons. Speech Application Language Tags (SALT) represents another industry consortia-led effort that is focusing on enabling Web services and applications to interact with users through the natural human interface of speech.

Through the SALT specification, which is royalty-free, people will one day be able to interact with networks, PCs and Web services simply by speaking with them or through “multimodal” interfaces — a combination of speech and traditional graphical user interfaces. The SALT Forum, the consortium formed to advance this standard, envisions a speech-enabled Web that allows users to interact with applications and systems through any device in any location.

As a standards body, the SALT Forum has been around only since October, though it is already working productively and cooperatively with several industry veterans in the fold. But as a specification, SALT provides a very compelling argument for the industry — simplicity.

“There’s not a lot of fluff with SALT,” says James Mastan, group product manager for the .NET Speech Technologies group at Microsoft. “SALT provides tags, basically extensions to HTML or XML tags, that extend the capabilities of those languages to incorporate speech. There are only six or seven SALT elements, and they fit right in with traditional Web programming models.”

Mastan says the SALT initiative is a great example of what standards should be — an elegant, simple and definitive solution that is discussed, agreed upon and promoted as a cooperative industry effort. An initiative of Cisco Systems, Comverse, Intel, Microsoft, Philips and SpeechWorks, the SALT Forum currently boasts 24 member companies.

Says Mastan, “With SALT, developers don’t have to learn any new languages. They don’t have to purchase new tools. Companies can speech-enable their Web applications without new infrastructure investments by simply using their existing Web infrastructure. And because SALT supports both telephony and multimodal applications, a business can develop an application now that gives them telephony functionality, and then easily extend that to a multimodal scenario later on. It’s easy, it’s flexible and it’s cost-effective.”

Once the specification is a standard and in use around the globe, the emphasis will shift to competition among industry participants around their SALT-based offerings.

Cooperate, Then Compete

SALT is an example of a general trend when it comes to standards — industry players coming together, agreeing on the rules, then going back to their corners to compete. Once agreement on the underlying technology is in place, companies can begin to add their own value to the equation and start differentiating their offerings from the pack. The standards are necessary to create, grow and sustain the market for the future.

But that’s not to say that these standards efforts are ephemeral and will someday disappear entirely. Indeed, the very nature of a standard is that as soon as it’s in place, it becomes a foundation upon which a new generation of technologies and services can be built. This may take the form of new standards to extend the capabilities of existing ones, or new products that incorporate a standard and allow customers to put it to work.

Many such efforts center on extending and enhancing the capabilities of networks and the Internet as a communications medium. The Session Initiation Protocol, or SIP, is a standard from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) that promises to do for communications what HTML did for static text on the Web.

SIP establishes a session or shared state that includes the connection, device capabilities and communication mode. Like a phone call, an SIP session can be interrupted, ended or transferred to another location and picked up again. The result is a technology that promises to revolutionize interpersonal communications in much the same way the telephone did 100 years ago.

“SIP delivers on the promise of network convergence, so that smart clients connecting to users can carry any communications medium,” says David Gurle, product unit manager for Windows Real Time Communications at Microsoft. “For end users this provides a new communications dimension, allowing them to communicate via audio, video, instant messaging, application sharing and more over any Web-enabled device.”

While SIP is not purely a mobile device standard, its benefits in that area may be among the most compelling for consumers. In fact, because of their appeal and usefulness for consumers and businesses alike, mobile devices are one of the main areas of focus for emerging Web services and standards efforts in general.

At the recent 3GSM World Congress in Cannes, France, wireless industry representatives gathered to discuss new mobile technologies and mobile consumer services. Microsoft’s participation in that dialogue included an early glimpse of the capabilities of such Windows-powered smart-device software as Pocket PC 2002 Phone Edition and Microsoft Smartphone 2002 which employ SIP and other specifications.

Mike Wehrs, director of technology and standards for Microsoft’s Mobility Solutions Planning Group, announced the company’s support for the GSM Association’s M-Services Phase II Initiative. Microsoft is supporting the Phase II specification because it allows for the delivery of great user experiences through a variety of Microsoft technology initiatives. Chief among those is technology that allows mobile-services developers to bring the world of managed code and XML Web services to devices such as PDAs, smart cellular phones and the Tablet PC.

“Basically applications that are written to comply with this framework will be able to interact fully with the Web services and Web servers that are part of the overall .NET architecture,” Wehrs says. “The end result for users is that they will see applications through their mobile devices that are much more rich and compelling, allowing the true nature of desktop and Web services applications to come through in a mobile device.”

These technologies will. Wehrs observes, provide substantial benefits to developers and mobile device manufacturers by allowing more powerful devices to showcase their capabilities.

“You can draw a parallel to the PC world, where someone could buy a US$500 PC or a $5,000 PC,” Wehrs says. “The software development environment that an application developer would use on either of those is the same, but their performance is going to be dramatically different. With these technologies, mobile device applications are no longer written to the lowest common denominator, so device manufacturers can actually see the extra features in their devices brought to bear in a way that allows them to differentiate themselves.”

It’s an example of standards providing a broad set of shoulders upon which new generations of technology can stand. It would be wrong, however, to see in such cross-industry cooperation a shift away from the intense competition that has for decades been the technology industry’s hallmark and driving force.

“It’s already being said a lot around the industry,” Microsoft’s Kurt says. “We’re going to cooperate on these standards, and compete on the quality of their implementation and the strength of related tools and technologies. It’s about laying the groundwork for the next generation of innovation, competition and differentiation.”