[FoRK] NYTimes.com Article: Microsoft Creates a Stir in Its Work With the U.N.

khare at alumni.caltech.edu khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Mon Feb 23 19:05:59 PST 2004


This article from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by khare at alumni.caltech.edu.


Man, it's hard to make the business of standard-setting dramatic and newsworthy -- there's something important at stake here, yet even I couldn't quite explain it to you based on this article.

Nevertheless, I don't fault the two reporters; kudos for them to get the issue raised at all in the first place... though perhaps I'd have to wait and see if even the _Economist_ could credibly tackle this dispute in as few words (let alone for the more general NYT readership)

Rohit -- who has accepted MS travel $$s in the past, fwiw...

khare at alumni.caltech.edu


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Microsoft Creates a Stir in Its Work With the U.N.

February 23, 2004
 By JOHN MARKOFF and JENNIFER L. SCHENKER 



 

The chairman of the Microsoft Corporation, Bill Gates, won
widespread applause in January when he trumpeted an
agreement to give $1 billion in software and cash to the
United Nations as part of a job-training program for the
developing world. 

But Microsoft did not seek any attention for a much smaller
amount that it contributed earlier to pay some travel
expenses for a United Nations business standards group. 

That payment, critics say, had a much more opportunistic
motive than the big donation. 

Several software industry executives and technologists
contend that Microsoft has been moving behind the scenes to
undercut support for a set of business-to-business
electronic transaction standards jointly developed by the
United Nations and an industry-sponsored international
standards group. 

Microsoft and senior United Nations officials said that the
accusation was false and that the company's contributions
were relatively modest, complied with United Nations
guidelines, and did not unduly influence decision making. 

Microsoft and I.B.M. have been trying to gain backing for a
competing approach to writing Internet software, which the
two companies argue would be a better, more general
solution for business-to-business computer communications
than the original United Nations-developed standard, known
as "electronic business using extensible markup language,''
or ebXML in the trade. 

The previously hidden dispute may seem arcane, but it
revolves around computing standards that are likely to help
determine control over an emerging generation of Web
services software that is designed to automate buying and
selling through networks of computer connections. Many
industry executives predict that the new software will
ultimately supplant computer operating systems as the
linchpin of the industry. 

This new fight is occurring as Microsoft, the world's
largest software company, moves to the final stages of its
legal dispute with antitrust regulators in Europe over its
right to integrate features of its competitors' products
into its Windows operating system. On another front,
Microsoft is being challenged by an array of open-source
programs - starting with Linux but expanding to other
arenas - that are being developed by a loosely organized
group of software programmers and distributed at little or
no cost. 

"Microsoft would love to live in a proprietary world," said
Robert J. Glushko, director of the Center for Document
Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley and
an initiator of the ebXML standards effort. "They are
finding it difficult to live in a standards-based world." 

Several technologists who have participated in the United
Nations-supported standards-setting effort said the dispute
was a new, critical stage in the long fight between
Microsoft and its competitors over what they see as
Microsoft's overly aggressive business practices. One
United Nations official said the bitter industry infighting
was inescapable. 

"It doesn't matter which side you are on with this
company," said the official, Klaus-Dieter Naujok, a
software designer who is the chairman of the United Nations
standards committee involved in the dispute. "You're doomed
if you bring them in, and you're doomed if you exclude
them." Microsoft paid Mr. Naujok to write a position paper
on Web services last year. 

Microsoft executives said that their critics were
complaining because they are in danger of being left behind
by the Microsoft-I.B.M. push in Web services, which the
executives said would be based on standards that give the
two companies no commercial advantage over others. 

"There has been an incredible amount of momentum around Web
services,'' said Steven Van Roekel, Microsoft's director
for platform strategy. "This was about industry momentum
more than anything else.'' 

Microsoft's critics see it differently. They point out that
Microsoft did not initially participate in the development
of the open ebXML standard, which does not require users to
rely on its proprietary Biztalk Server product line. The
standard was originally developed as a low-cost alternative
to a traditional business-to-business computer standard
called electronic data interchange. 

But as the new standard started gathering considerable
support in Asia and Europe, they say, Microsoft, which is
based in Redmond, Wash., began to mount its own efforts to
blunt its momentum. Despite that, the Pentagon recently
adopted ebXML. 

Last month, the dispute moved beyond the insular world of
experts who set technical standards when Jean-Pierre
Henninot, a French official who wrote a letter charging
that the United Nations business standards group - the
Center for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business, or
Cefact - was privately turning its back on the ebXML
standard. 

The letter, which will be discussed at a United Nations
meeting this spring, was prompted in part by a decision
last August by the United Nations group to end its
cooperation with the Organization for the Advancement of
Structured Information Standards, the industry standards
body with which it developed ebXML. 

Critics contend that Microsoft drove a wedge between the
two groups by quietly providing financial support to
several members of the United Nations standards body. 

According to several people involved in developing the
ebXML standard, Microsoft first hired two members of a
small subcommittee of the United Nations group in late 2002
and early last year. In March 2003, a Microsoft employee
introduced a software framework for electronic business to
the United Nations subcommittee as an alternative to ebXML.


The issue recently came to a head after Microsoft's
opponents learned that the company had paid the travel
expenses to Europe and Asia for three United Nations
committee members. In September the officials, including
two Microsoft employees also serving on the committee,
traveled to six countries on a trip that critics said was a
thinly disguised effort to promote Microsoft and I.B.M.'s
software alternative for developing Web services, known as
the business collaboration framework or B.C.F. 

I.B.M. was not involved in the travel payments.


Supporters of the business collaboration framework say that
it can be used with a variety of software technologies,
including ebXML. Critics respond that the Web services
around which the framework has been designed are
proprietary Microsoft and I.B.M. technologies rather than
open standards. 

Microsoft and United Nations officials acknowledge that
Microsoft helped subsidize the trip, but they had different
explanations of the reasons for its support. 

Ray Walker, the chairman of the United Nations steering
group within Cefact that is overseeing the standard
setting, said that because two Microsoft employees were
part of the technical group, he thought it was important to
go "along on the tour to make sure there was absolute
transparency and no Microsoft input on Cefact's tours to
introduce B.C.F. to Asia and Europe." 

He acknowledged that Microsoft paid part of his travel and
hotel expenses on the tour, as well as those of two other
participants, Mr. Naujok, the chairman of the techniques
and methods group of the standards committee, and Kenji
Itoh, the vice chairman of the standards committee. 

Critics say that slides presented during the tour included
information that favored Microsoft's approach. 

"There was one slide on the Asian trip," Mr. Walker said.
"I still very much like it,'' he said, but he was
"subsequently told it appeared to represent a Microsoft
position. I asked Mr. Naujok to check that. He said it
thought it was O.K., but we changed it on the European
tour." 

Mr. Walker said that the Microsoft contributions did not
"in any way give Microsoft an advantage; Web services was a
portion of the larger message of the tour.'' 

Microsoft says it helped pay travel expenses of the group
as part of its effort to gain support for the business
collaboration framework. 

"We have been evangelizing Web services,'' Mr. Van Roekel
said, "and we view this as part of that.'' 

Mr. Walker said such tours are not possible without
"contributions in kind" from participants. About 75 percent
of the cost of the September trip to Asia was picked up by
governments, he said. 

Mr. Walker said his employer, the British government, paid
for his plane ticket from London to the first Asian
destination. Microsoft paid for the flights between Asian
countries and for the hotel bills. Local governments and
intragovernmental agencies covered organizational costs
like renting meeting rooms and sending out invitations, he
said. 

Microsoft also paid travel and hotel expenses during the
European leg of the tour, Mr. Walker said. 

"We only had that particular offer,'' Mr. Walker said. " We
are very open to being sponsored by anybody." 

"We are very aware,'' he added, "that we have got a gorilla
sitting on our arm.'' 

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/23/technology/23soft.html?ex=1078591958&ei=1&en=344b4ff0f3034c64


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