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Investing in Web services

Investing in Web services

Web services has sold the technology industry a promise: the potential to redefine the way software is written, delivered, managed and sold.

Web services has sold the technology industry a promise: the potential to redefine the way software is written, delivered, managed and sold. For those who recall the epic battle between DCOM and Corba a decade ago, the arguments will sound familiar. Yet it's still unclear if the Web services model will actually become the promised industry revolution, or simply serve as a feature set for tomorrow's products from today's well-established players. It makes me think of a sage comment from the great Yogi Berra: "It's like déjà vu all over again." Web services is an amorphous blob of business apps, and different players define it differently. Ultimately it can be described as any application delivered over the Internet and accessed by almost any device, from PCs to mobile phones. What Web services can offer is a set of shared protocols and standards that permit systems to share data and services without requiring humans to broker the conversation. The result promises to be "on-the-fly" links between the online processes of different companies.

The middleware vendors and system integrators have made fortunes, but for many businesses, the resulting mess of hard-coded, inflexible bindings between legacy and new enterprise software is certainly not the solution they dream about.

The Web services dream, if fulfilled, could provide far more control for end users to assemble the needed building blocks that allow for tremendous flexibility and lower total cost of ownership. In today's world, the high-cost integration software and services that currently link enterprise applications are simply not sustainable. If it works, Web services will offer an escape hatch.

So here are my thoughts, with a few themes Berra would probably recall.

1. "It's pretty far, but it doesn't seem like it." Despite the near deafening roar of the software hype machines, Web services is still in its infancy. Early advocates say adoption will accelerate in the next 18 to 24 months, assuming that the industry meets several milestones, including firming up standards and releasing the next versions of your favorite ERP, CRM, SCM, EAI solutions that incorporate the important interoperability standards, beyond simple XML. Other standards are still coming along, including SOAP, UDDI, WSDL, SAML, WSUI, ebXML and WSFL (didn't that league fold a year ago?).

2. "If you can't imitate him, don't copy him." Like it or not, the legacy software providers will own most of the emerging opportunities for Web services. As the battle between Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition (J2EE) and Microsoft .Net rages, there will be few chances for new companies to take significant market share. Legacy vendors, such as Microsoft and IBM, will use Web services to supplement their offerings throughout the software stack. The leading database vendors, system managers and security vendors will do the same. Not much "white space" will remain for new players, and only startups offering niche-based point solutions are likely to be left standing.

3. "I knew I was going to take the wrong train, so I left early." A skeptic might assume that much of the hyperbole surrounding Web services, as with DCOM and Corba before it, is nothing more than the self-serving cry of incumbent software vendors desperate for the next architectural wave to ride. Corporate IT managers are still reeling from the mountain of partially implemented, oversold applications and integration projects that were driven by the Web-induced competitive environment. While the promise of Web services is definitely attractive, the time frames and benefits have been overstated.

With Web services, another old Yogi-ism may still have the final word: "In [Web services], you don't know nothing."

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