A grand new vision of the Internet is emerging, at least among software firms eager to sell the building blocks that would make it possible. While dubbed “Web services,” this vision is really about software infrastructure, or the lack thereof. In the Web-services model, companies won’t buy software, they’ll rent it via the Web.
That’s essentially what happens today in the ASP model, but Web services allows the customer to rent components from various sources on the Internet, and mix and match them to create new applications. IT staffers could, in theory, create new applications as easily as they surf Web sites, linking one vendor’s database service with another’s analytic engine, and perhaps augmenting that with still other companies’ credit-authorization or currency-conversion capabilities. Supply-chain partners wouldn’t just swap data, they also would link their systems at the most fundamental levels, achieving integration far beyond what today’s Web-based exchanges allow.
Two trends are converging to make this vision possible. The first is the maturation of several critical interface standards, including XML, SOAP, UDDI, and WSDL, which provide the means by which software modules can work with, and even “find,” one another on the Web. (UDDI, for example, is a searchable directory of all Web services extant.) The other is the enthusiasm for this concept shared by Microsoft, IBM, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, and a host of other software vendors that make the tools and programming languages that would underlie this world of Web services.
While the market for these products barely exists, confusion has set in as various vendors trumpet both their adherence to standards and the superiority of their own products. Microsoft and Sun are most clearly positioned as direct competitors, although as AMR Research senior analyst Peter Urban notes, “a program written in [Sun's] Java should be able to talk to a program written in [Microsoft's] C# if they both adhere to SOAP and the other standards.”
What the competition is really about, says Mark Desmery, chief technology officer at Duzine.com LLC, a New Paltz, N.Y.-based firm that offers a currency-conversion product in something like a Web-services model, is “a battle for developer mind share.” Each vendor wants to establish itself early on as the best source of the products that other software firms and corporate IT departments will need to pursue the Web-services model.
While it exists today mostly as an abstraction, there is a compelling argument for Web services: The Internet can do more than simply provide a pipeline for data. It can act as a de facto infrastructure, augmenting or even replacing costly “back office” installations that are virtually synonymous with IT. And software programs could become more robust and provide greater strategic impact, if they could be created quickly by connecting existing, proven components in new ways.
But companies have been burned by grand visions before. The idea of building software quickly and more cheaply through reusable components has been around for at least 15 years, to little effect; similarly, client-server architectures were supposed to spread computing over a network and reap many rewards. Some of that did come to pass, in the sense that the Internet operates that way, but in a larger sense, no one looks back fondly on client-server initiatives.