Holly Burgess is happy with her web-based software; just don’t ask her how it works. The attorney and assistant vice president of advanced sales at CGU Life Insurance Co. of America, in Quincy, Massachusetts, says that in the year she’s been using PlanLab, from Impact Technologies Group Inc., she’s been able to close bigger cases and sign on more agents, thanks to the analytical help provided by the software. The fact that, behind the scenes, Impact is using certain “Web services” technologies to provide her with the capabilities she needs means little to her.
It does, however, mean a great deal to Impact, to Microsoft (which supplies the tools Impact uses to develop its products), and, by extension, to the makers and consumers of virtually every kind of software. Awash in the sort of hype usually reserved for Olympic figure skaters, Web services — a term applied to both the tools used to build easily integrated Web-based applications and to the underlying technology standards they rely on — can use some early success stories to bolster the claims being made for them.
In the Harvard Business Review last October, senior executives at 12 Entrepreneuring Inc., a Web services incubator, predicted that Web services would ultimately turn many companies “inside out, with their formerly well-guarded core capabilities visible and accessible to all.” Research firm IDC says that an “acceleration of the transformation of business models” is possible, with some companies embracing a “virtual IT” department while others turn in-house IT into a profit center, all thanks to Web services.
Transformative technologies have been hailed before, only to disappear into the chasm of failed expectations. Ironically, what makes Web services a legitimate contender for “next big thing” is that it is actually many small, old things redesigned and fine-tuned via years of trial and error and collective hindsight. There have been many efforts to make software programs easier to write, to simplify the connections between programs, and to network companies within and without their walls. While many of those efforts have been disappointing or outright failures, they’ve provided valuable lessons for developers of Web services. Combine those lessons with the fundamental “openness” of the Internet, and solutions to many of IT’s thorniest problems may be at hand.
A Welcome Misnomer
Despite a surfeit of headlines about Web services, a CFO could be forgiven for not understanding what they are. In large part that’s because the term itself is misleading. Leave it to the IT world to finally forgo an acronym in favor of a simple phrase, only to get the phrase wrong. These “services” are really an emerging set of protocols and standards that will allow software programs to describe themselves to each other and integrate with each other without the handcrafting that has marked most “systems integration” efforts to date.
There are at least two reasons why CFOs should take a keen interest in Web services: They probably won’t cost much, and they really may change everything. The era of quickly built, easily integrated software may not be here, but it’s tantalizingly close. The armies of internal IT staff or hired guns who spend months or years on projects may eventually be able to develop new applications in just weeks.