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The Battle for Web Services

The Battle for Web Services

Fear of Fees

Contrary to the hype that surrounds Web services, there is no guarantee that the technology will continue to follow the path it has followed so far, which is that it is free and comes with limited restrictions.

In fact, the free model for Web services already has been tested and has just barely survived. In the northern spring of 2002, just as standards organisation Oasis was about to ratify the specification for ebXML (electronic business using extensible markup language, designed to help companies transact business across borders and languages), IBM announced that it held patents for a piece of the specification and that it would offer it under a licensing model called Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (RAND). If that had stood, vendors would have had the right to charge fees and apply usage restrictions to individual users of the software on a case-by-case basis. But after other contributors to the specification, including the United Nations, claimed that IBM previously had pledged that its work would be royalty-free, IBM issued a statement saying it would relinquish any rights to fees. "We were happy to clarify that we did not intend to charge a fee when we realised that some of the industry was confused," says IBM spokesman Eisenstadt. "We had never proposed that we would charge a royalty; we were simply following the process as defined by the standards body."

Both Eisenstadt and Microsoft's VanRoekel say their companies will not charge royalties for the specifications that they offer to standards bodies. But both companies will continue to use RAND licensing for their specifications, which means that other restrictions could be placed on the use of the ­technology.

Web services needs to be free of cost and other licence restrictions if the industry and its customers are to adopt them on a broad enough scale to make interoperability a reality, say standards believers. If the vision for Web services comes true, and companies use these standards as they use HTTP and HTML - that is, constantly - then royalties on Web services could become like a tollbooth for business on the Internet, chipping money out of every transaction that crosses the wires.

Worries about intellectual property led one standards organisation, W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium), to adopt a policy that all specifications it ratifies into standards must be free of fees and other restrictions. In addition, companies submitting specifications for consideration as standards must declare their licensing and patent intentions up front before the standard comes to a vote.

Critics say that has driven Microsoft and IBM into the arms of another standards organisation, Oasis (Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards), which has less rigorous requirements regarding patent and royalty issues. "At Oasis, we do have a policy that allows for specifications to have patent claims," says Patrick Gannon, the organisation's president and CEO. "The result is that over 90 per cent of the specifications from Oasis have no royalty related to them." But it's that last 10 per cent that has people worried. Web services standards are like pieces in a puzzle: Most are dependent on other pieces to make a whole. If just one of the necessary pieces has royalties or restrictions attached to it, the system is not free.

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