At a conference dedicated to the topic of Web services, the ability of
experts to define the emerging technology and how it can be implemented
in a business would seem to be a given.
Coming to a consensus about what the term means, however, proved to be
a challenge at InfoWorld's Next-Generation Web Services Conference, as
developers, investors and business managers gathered to understand how
new technologies based on XML (Extensible Markup Language) and other
industry standards will aid the evolution of the Internet.
Broadly defined, a Web service is a method of making various
applications communicate with each other automatically over the
Internet. The goal is to streamline business processes by allowing
software applications to be delivered over the Internet and run across
all kinds of computers, from large servers to handheld devices.
But explaining just how that fits into a corporate IT department's
development plans, or how consumers will ultimately end up using Web
services, can be difficult, judging from remarks made by show attendees
and speakers. Many companies being approached by software vendors and
consulting firms to buy into the idea are still trying to understand
the concept, said Lee Morgan, senior vice president of Plural Inc., a
New York- based business consulting firm, who attended the conference
"It's hard to tell whether customers just don't have the money to
invest in Web services or whether they don't know how they would
implement it," Morgan said.
The confusion around Web services gets stickier due to the fact that
many industry experts have different opinions on the subject. An
informal poll conducted by conference organizers of nearly 500 industry
executives and Web services developers during the opening presentation
at InfoWorld's Web Services Conference revealed that many people had
varying definitions of the term.
About two-thirds of the group thought Web services were "next-
generation, service- oriented Internet applications," a term that
offers little in the way of specific information for companies who
might end up implementing the technology. Other popular definitions
included "component-based software architecture," and "a concept of a
In the big picture, what people call Web services is really "just one
piece of the puzzle," within the general context of software systems
and networked computing, said James Gosling, vice president and fellow
at Sun Microsystems Inc. Gosling, who is the father of the Java
programming language, gave the opening keynote Wednesday here.
"I think everybody has a different answer for what Web services are,"
Gosling said in his speech.
Peter Fenton, a principal investor with Accel Partners in Palo Alto,
California, was one attendee at the show looking to define the budding
market. Looking for trends and possible investment opportunities,
Fenton said he is approaching the subject with both caution and
"I think we are, like most people in the venture capital community,
incredibly curious about what new technologies and companies will
emerge around Web services," Fenton said of his venture capital firm.
Clearly, many of the major software vendors are latching on to the
technologies that make up the basis of Web services. Microsoft Corp.
has based its entire product line going forward on its .Net initiative,
according to company executives. Every software application and
developer tool is in the process of becoming ".Net-enabled," which
means adding support for XML and other programming standards.
Other vendors such as Sun Microsystems Inc. and IBM Corp., as well as
startup companies, are also putting XML support into nearly everything
they build. Competing software vendors have all started to agree on
standard technologies and methods for building and deploying Web
services, which is a signal of its potential success, Fenton said.
Still, "there's a lot of hype, but not a lot of substance so far," he
A diverse set of software and consultants are all touting various tools
and applications here that are intended to allow corporations to
transform their existing applications as Web services. While some early
adopters have begin putting the tools to use, many attendees are still
only beginning to discover the budding technology behind all the hype.
For example, RioLabs Inc., a software maker based in Denver, Colorado,
was showing off its development environment for turning existing
applications into Web services. The company offers tools to take a
feature in an Oracle Corp. database -- order inventory management, for
instance -- and publish it on the Internet as a Web service, so that
other companies have access to it.
Sun's Gosling described this process as just an evolution of how the
Internet currently works. Web services, he explained, are crucial to
the way companies will build and consume applications. But this is
something, he said, that entails more than adding services to the
"The Internet has always been service oriented. But they are services
presented to humans," he said, citing such examples as eBay Inc.'s
auction service or ticket buying services on travel Web sites. "The
real switch in thinking is 'gee maybe we can make these services
available to silicon-based life forms."
In other words, the next step in the evolution of the Internet is to
have computers (Gosling's "silicon-based life forms") automatically
feed information to each other, without the need for human
intervention. One example is Microsoft's Passport authentication
service, which lets Web surfers log on to different sites and Internet-
based applications without having to re-key personal information.
That's where the Web services technology such as SOAP (Simple Object
Access Protocol), WSDL (Web Services Description Language) and XML come
"SOAP and XML have often been characterized as HTML (Hypertext Markup
Language) for silicon-based life forms. An HTML that is readable by
software," Gosling said. HTML, one of the first Web standards, is the
coding used to create Web pages and lay out text, while XML is a
specification for, among other things, formatting data in a way that
can be communicated automatically from one application or computer to
With operating system vendors agreeing on how to use more-advanced Web
standards, various services that use competing software applications
will ultimately allow companies to automate their business processes
and exchange information with each other in a standard way. This will
eliminate the need for loads of development on the part of corporate
programmers, to get their systems to link to those from other
companies. In many cases, computers will do the work automatically.
In the consumer market, where Microsoft has pitched some of its .Net
Services -- such as centralized calendaring and universal user
authentication -- this method of making services readable by "silicon-
based life forms" is still far from widespread adoption.
"It's intriguing to people. The concept of (consumer) services sounds
interesting. But I don't see it being the first market," said Plural's
Morgan, citing security and privacy as key barriers. "I think it's
first going to be used with the enterprise, to write systems."
That was also the opinion of Aleksander Niebylski, a technical analyst
with Accenture Ltd., who is helping to develop a set of business
applications, based on Web services technologies from various vendors,
for the consulting company's corporate customers.
"I see Web services as a way of unlocking all the data out on the Web.
It is a way of lowering the price barrier for expanding data and
transferring data," Niebylski said, noting that standards such as XML,
SOAP and WSDL can let data be used by various applications from various
vendors and on various operating systems.
Which then takes the question of what a Web service is and how IT
departments can make use of it back to square one. Under all of the
hype and alphabet soup of technologies, it is basically just a better
way of doing what software and application vendors have been doing for
years -- letting businesses and computer users share information.
"This is basically just an evolution of existing technologies,"