Applications and tools vendors will soon have a standardised way to enable teams of people to safely work on the same Web server with a new proposed standard coming from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) as early as this month.
The Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning (WebDAV) protocol brings more manageability to disparate authoring environments working on the same server.
Despite its name, though, the protocol will not address versioning in its first incarnation.
"I joke that it should be called WebDA, since the versioning stuff was punted in this version of the protocol," said Nick Shelness, chief tech-nology officer at Lotus Development, who is involved in the working group.
Lotus and other industry heavyweights such as Microsoft, Netscape and Novell are involved in the WebDAV working group that is drafting the protocol.
The first area in which many vendors and analysts expect the standard to show up is current Web authoring tools.
Currently, most authoring tools download a Web page when it is being revised or edited, but other people can still access that page while it is being revised. So if one person makes a change to a Web page while another person is working on the same page off-line, the first person's changes will be overwritten when the other person uploads the page.
With WebDAV, the Web server "locks" pages that are checked out by Web team members and only unlocks them when the page is saved back to the server.
Many authoring tools such as Microsoft FrontPage, Macromedia Dreamweaver and NetObjects TeamFusion have a check in/out capability but require all of the Web team to use the same authoring environment.
"WebDAV is a more elaborate way of letting teams work on Web files," said Kevin Lynch, vice president of engineering and Internet authoring at Macromedia. "It's a very important issue among Web teams."
Lynch expects it to take a while before WebDAV is broadly implemented but said Dreamweaver would support it.
Other vendors said adoption should not be a major problem because WebDAV is just an extension to HTTP.
"HTTP is the ultimate instance of client/sever made easy," said Fernando Ruarte, lead engineer at NetObjects.
"You can see the client/server world before the Web and every company that needed a protocol invented its own. No one ever agreed on the client/server protocol, because it was too complex," Ruarte said.
One analyst said WebDAV will help some problems, but it is not a panacea.
"The standard is excellent as a method to let all the different writing tools participate in the document-management structure, but it's not going to make all the content transferable to other systems transparently," said Tim Sloane, an analyst at the Aberdeen Group.
Including implementation on the client tools is only half the battle, considering that the tools will need to be able to dynamically interact over HTTP with Web servers. For example, Microsoft and Netscape are both involved in the standards process, although neither will say exactly when WebDAV support will find its way into its server products.
"It's a little early, but we're definitely in favour of it," said Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape.
Microsoft said it is very involved with the standard, but is not ready to talk about product support, although the inclusion of an early incarnation of WebDAV in the resource kit for Internet Information Server 4.0 indicates the company has definite plans of where it will be implemented.
One of the authors of WebDAV said the standard will also enable several new tools and possibilities.
"I think it's going to spawn a lot of new tools," said Jim Whitehead, chair of the WebDAV working group.
When pressed, Whitehead came up with several real-world instances of WebDAV integration. If WebDAV support was added to Java, applets would gain write-access on the Web server, he said. Document-management vendors are standardising how information is stored in repositories, he said, but they do not address how remote clients can access the repositories - a good fit for WebDAV. Novell is expected to add WebDAV support to GroupWise 6.0 as early as this summer as part of its document-management strategy.
Lotus and UserLand Software, which creates the freeware Frontier content-management system, see WebDAV as a way for Web teams to interact with their repositories, said officials at those companies.
"WebDAV begins to take us in a way that the Web is one-to-one with a file system, and it begins to make it possible for Web resources to live in other sorts of repositories," said Lotus' Shelness. "Most of the interest is in WebDAV as a general-purpose interface to content stores."
UserLand Software in the US sees WebDAV as a way to separate the components of a Web site into its disparate elements, which Frontier can then assemble automatically.
Dave Winer, president of UserLand, said WebDAV will let writers author content in their word processors of choice and then save their work from, for example, a WebDAV-enabled Microsoft Word document (Microsoft has announced no such product direction) directly to the Web server, from which it can be pulled into an object database.
End users have final say
Sloane said it is important to realise that standards open a lot of doors for interoperability, but how well those standards actually meet the needs of end users are ultimately what makes them take off and become accepted technology.
"There are so many different approaches to managing content right now that standardisation is going to be really important," Sloane said. "The other side of that equation is that the process by which people manage content is so different based on the organisation, structure and attitude of a company, it makes standardisation in this area pretty difficult."
"The question is, which of the solutions meet the needs of the end users and what are their needs? All of these things are possible, but the user's needs of a Web online site are significantly different than a user of Word for Windows," Sloane added. "There's a million shades in between that."