MS sends in lawyers to stop ‘open’ SOAP info getting out

Admit it - we're embracing and extending again, aren't we?

A phone call from a Microsoft lawyer earlier this month provided some more signposts as to how Microsoft intends to implement/embrace 'open' industry standards. Jason Bishop, who'd been involved in development of SOAP in his previous job as a contractor at Microsoft, was due to give a talk to the Seattle area Java-XML SIG, but immediately prior to his presentation he took the call, and was reminded that he was still covered by NDA.

In an email to SIG members after the meeting SIG chair Dennis Sosnowski said that Bishop had to "severely edit his presentation at the last minute," following the lawyer's call, and expressed some bafflement: " I was puzzled to hear about this, since I couldn't imagine (1) what he'd have been talking about that would be proprietary or (2) why the most innovative legal staff in the industry would be so concerned to make sure he didn't spill anything. I was even more surprised when several Microsoft SOAP people, apparently including a lawyer, then showed up at our meeting (none of them having any interest whatsoever in Java, as far as I could tell). Jason was unable to tell me anything, of course, but the amount of concern from M$ got my interest."

According to Sosnowski, Bishop had been due to talk about changes to the SOAP spec and the justifications for these; difficulties in developing a Remote Object Proxy Engine (ROPE), which is a set of APIs intended to automate the handling of SOAP communications; and to discuss the most recent SOAP spec from IBM. "He cut most of this," Sosnowski told The Register, "presumably in response to the lawyer interest, and instead covered the basics of using SOAP in Java."

Bishop seems to have been wise to cut the presentation. Sosnowski says at least three people from Microsoft attended the meeting. At least one worked on SOAP, and one "declined to introduce himself when we went around the room, and when I asked him specifically his interest he said he was 'just along for the ride.'" Sounds like a lawyer, both to Sosnoowski and The Register.

Bishop says his presentation was a little disjointed. "I'd start talking about something, and then I'd realise I was probably treading on dangerous ground as I haven't seen IBM's xidl handling and I'd be outlining the MS method almost exactly so I'd stop in mid sentence and have to change the topic." But he hit on the tactic of staying quiet when SOAP came under fire, until the Microsoft reps couldn't resist jumping in.

Aside from confirming the bare facts of the matter, Bishop isn't in much of a position to say anything. But he did tell The Register that he still thinks SOAP is a worthwhile idea, and suggested that maybe Microsoft rattling lawyers at him was maybe a little on the draconian side.

Sosnowski has his own theories about the matter, and in the wake of Microsoft's battle with Slashdot over the Kerberos spec, they're pretty plausible. "My bet," he says, "is that SOAP is actually the core of NGWS [Next Generation Windows Services]. This would make sense - SOAP is basically Visual Basic calls wrapped in XML, and it's been well understood at Microsoft for some time that to get Bill Gates behind a project it just takes some connection with his crowning technical achievement (Basic, that is)."

That last bit was entirely uncalled for, Dennis. But SOAP and XML will certainly have a lot to do with NGWS, so Microsoft's heavy-handedness in using lawyers to forcibly remind Bishop of his NDA is horribly significant. As with Kerberos, Microsoft will conform to open industry standards, so long as it can use its own IP to control/subvert them by stealth. Alternatively, if anybody can think of an innocent reason why Microsoft doesn't want former contractors to be open with a 30-strong meeting of a Seattle Java SIG, please let us know... ®

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