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Microsoft: Web services have way to go

For all the buzz around the Web services concept, it will remain just that--a concept--until businesses figure out how and why to use such services, says a Microsoft engineer.

SAN FRANCISCO--For all the buzz around the new concept called Web services, it will remain just that--a concept--until businesses figure out how and why to use such services, according to Microsoft engineer Mark Lucovsky.

Lucovsky helps lead a team of software engineers at Microsoft charged with developing the company's .Net products, a new set of programming tools and applications that enable companies to build and use Web services, an evolving set of Internet protocols and standards.

But before companies can reap the envisioned benefits of such services, companies, their IT departments and software developers have a lot of learning and thinking to do, Lucovsky said during a keynote speech Wednesday at the InfoWorld CTO Forum here.

Microsoft, along with rivals IBM, Sun Microsystems and others, hail Web services as a way to harness the Internet so that companies can more efficiently conduct business and attract new customers. They envision Web services saving money by letting different computer systems talk to each other without human intervention or making money by creating new services people will pay for.

Yet most companies have not made a business case for Web services, Lucovsky pointed out. Given the investment in technology and skills required to build them, companies won't launch headlong into Web services without a tangible business reason. To date, though, few discussions of Web services have focused on the economics of them.

"Does the Web service limit or enhance your business model?" Lucovsky asked. "If it's open to anyone, are you giving your system away for free?"

Lucovsky didn't have an answer to those questions but guessed that the business model of Web services will not resemble that of many advertising-dependent dot-coms. That's because most Web services will work behind the scenes, shuttling data between computers, providing no interface on which to display online ads, he said.

Another hurdle is that various Web services specifications, such as Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) and Web Services Definition Language, don't yet address standard ways to reliably route messages between computers, ensure the security of data exchanged through Web services, or authenticate the identity of people using a Web service.

"SOAP 1.0 is very basic," Lucovsky said. "There's a need for advanced capabilities. It's easy for people to go their separate ways and come up with different, incompatible ways of doing them."

In addition, software programmers have to learn new skills, and businesses have to invest in training their IT staff to make Web services work, Lucovsky said.

Programmers have to develop a deep knowledge of Extensible Markup Language (XML), the basis of all Web services, he said. They have to become less reliant on application programming interfaces and other common tools that can simplify application development but can tie software to proprietary computing environments rather than making it available to all kinds of systems, which is the entire premise of Web services.

Lucovsky said that software developers should also build programs with the understanding that people using the program, or Web service component of it, will be able to take data entered into the program--such as their order history or preferences list--with them.

With its Passport service, Microsoft is hoping customers will let the company store such personal information for them. The upshot, Lucovsky said, is that companies will have to compete on the merits of the application or service rather than on their ability to "lock in" customers with high switching costs.

"If I shopped with HomeGrocer and switched to Albertsons.com, there's a huge switching cost because I have to create my shopping list all over again," Lucovsky said. "With Web services, you wouldn't have to do that because your data goes with you. Applications compete in a completely different way."