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Commentary: The dark side of the Web

Web services are a part of a shift from a Web of people to a Web of things, populated mostly by systems and machines locked in lights-out data centers.

Commentary: The dark side of the Web
By Forrester Research
Special to CNET
November 20, 2002, 6:15AM PT

By David Truog, Principal Analyst

Web services presage the next big step for the Internet.

Some skeptics see Web services cowboys as all hat and no cattle. It's true that there's more talk than action about Web services these days. Why? Because so few people actually understand what a Web service is. That's scary, because for once the breathless advocates are right: Web services are a manifestation of a profound transformation.

For starters, here's a simple definition: A Web service is a piece of software that's designed to be used by other software via Internet protocols and formats. It's not necessarily based on Microsoft's .Net software plan, but it doesn't necessarily use SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) or even XML (Extensible Markup Language). A Web service is just a program interface designed to be used by other programs, in the style of Google's Web API. It's not a user interface like the main search page at, which is designed for people. And the technology for accessing a Web service is based purely on Internet standards, not on any vendor-proprietary technology.

What's the big transformation that Web services are a part of? The shift from a Web of people to a Web of things, populated mostly by systems and machines. From business applications like SAP's R/3 to consumer devices like Apple Computer's iPod, these systems are connecting to other systems across the Internet and communicating more often and faster than people ever will. The result: More of the network traffic consists of chatter between machines, not people, and the network of things is growing faster than the network of people.

Most business will happen on this dark side of the Web--the part that exists entirely between enterprise servers locked in lights-out data centers, not between office workers at their desks sending e-mail and instant messages or communicating through extranet portals.

But the Web of things won't happen, and neither will Web services, unless these systems can understand what the data that they send each other means. To do this, tech suppliers and their enterprise customers must create a Semantic Web built on a few basic standards governing how to tag data so that people or computers can easily look up the tags' definitions and what other tags they're related to--synonyms and hyponyms, for example.

Why not universal data standards for each specialized industry? Experience shows that it just doesn't work, because consensus is too long in coming, and each standard turns out to be too narrow to win more than niche adoption. Even if standards like EXIF (for digital

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Amazon, Google and others lead
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cameras) or HL7 (for health insurance) help systems work together within one industry, they can't keep up with continual innovation, and they don't mesh with standards for adjacent industries (like publishing and pharmaceuticals, respectively).

What to do? First, technology execs should get a head start by taking advantage of the resource description framework (RDF)--a standard that the World Wide Web Consortium has built and polished to lay the foundation for the Semantic Web in corporate applications. Second, companies should get their best minds involved in the consortium's most significant current project: building the additional layers of technology that will help the Web go semantic to steer it toward practical applications for system-to-system interoperability.

The point? Companies trying Web services without addressing this semantic gap or, worse, dismissing Web services altogether, will be shut out of the opportunities that arise from the expansion of the dark machine-to-machine side of the Web.

© 2002, Forrester Research, Inc. All rights reserved. Information is based on best available resources. Opinions reflect judgment at the time and are subject to change.