What Microsoft is doing right and wrong with BizTalk
Microsoft's BizTalk initiative represents both a help and a hindrance to the electronic commerce industry's quest for XML-based interoperability.
To Microsoft's credit, BizTalk has underscored the need for broad standards frameworks for business-to-business e-commerce interoperability, over and above traditional electronic data- interchange document formats. E-commerce is a total transaction environment that requires standards on many levels. Like competing frameworks, such as Ariba Technologies' Commerce XML (cXML), BizTalk uses XML to define message-routing envelopes, request-response messaging protocols, transaction workflows and online catalog structures.
Another attractive feature of Microsoft's framework is that it avoids defining standard XML/EDI schemas for the contents of business documents. BizTalk specifies a small number of mandatory XML tags for encapsulating documents but isn't picky about which XML/EDI document formats it encapsulates. Microsoft wisely defers to industry standards bodies to map existing EDI formats to XML.
However, Microsoft may be overstepping its bounds in attempting to position itself as an online clearinghouse and repository for XML-based e-commerce schemas developed elsewhere. If the Microsoft-sponsored www.biztalk.org were a pure schema clearinghouse and repository, it would be benign. However, Microsoft requires e-commerce developers to wrap BizTalk XML "tags" around their schemas in order to publish them to the repository. The tags declare that the contents of an XML/EDI message conform to a Microsoft-defined "namespace" or set of permissible data elements. The tags also specify message-routing features and request-response protocols defined under a framework controlled entirely by Microsoft. Submit your schema to the BizTalk repository and you risk submitting to Microsoft's e-commerce wrapper specification, which is not an official standard and is not even on the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) standards track.
The W3C has done a good job of defining a vendor-neutral core XML standard and supplementary specifications. Microsoft should submit its BizTalk specification, currently in Version 0.8, for W3C consideration as soon as it is complete.
We should note several points in Microsoft's defense. First, until now the W3C has failed to address message-routing functions in its working groups, so Microsoft has had little choice but to develop and promulgate its own interfaces. Also, Microsoft has in fact relied heavily on current and prospective W3C standards in developing BizTalk, which does not favor Microsoft products in any obvious way.
Most importantly, Microsoft has shown considerable willingness to participate in W3C and other industry alliances to develop vendor-neutral XML-based e-commerce standards. The company has enlisted Ariba and the Data Interchange Standards Association, among others, into its BizTalk steering committee. It has been active in a high-visibility vertical-market XML/EDI initiative, RosettaNet, which aims to automate the supply chain between IT vendors.
But perhaps Microsoft's most encouraging political move was its recent announcement that it is joining the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (Oasis), which is deploying a vendor-neutral online repository (at www.xml.org) for XML-based e-commerce document schemas. Microsoft should merge its BizTalk repository into the Oasis repository. The vendor should also commit to supporting non-BizTalk message-routing tags in its upcoming BizTalk Server product.
Interoperable business-to-business e-commerce needs vendor-neutral standards on all levels. If Microsoft tries to carve out a proprietary niche in this environment, it will soon find itself discredited in the court of industry opinion.