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Will Jini-like wishes come true?

CNET News.com's Mike Ricciuti examines whether a Microsoft-Intel vision for Web services can succeed where similar efforts from Sun have come up short.

Microsoft and Intel see Web services popping up everywhere, but their vision is strangely reminiscent of archrival Sun Microsystems' with an earlier technology called Jini.

Will it be yet another example where industry clout and marketing savvy pull off a transformation that the original technology innovator could not?

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Web services is an esoteric data exchange technology that has mostly been used as a platform for connecting information infrastructures within companies. But Microsoft and Intel have a much more ambitious plan.

"Web services is coming home," proclaimed Louis Burns, an Intel vice president, speaking at the company's development forum in San Francisco recently.

The two industry giants, along with Canon and BEA Systems, have published a technical specification, called WS-Discovery, which, among other things, allows mobile devices to find and use new services.

The announcement of WS-Discovery could finally pave the way for widespread, mass-market use of Web services technology. For instance, software that uses WS-Discovery could help a portable music player find a stereo receiver, or a cell phone tap into a local restaurant guide.

This idea might already sound familiar to anyone who has followed Sun.
This idea might already sound familiar to anyone who has followed Sun. In 1999, the company announced with great fanfare a technology called Jini that featured a similar "discovery" feature.

Back then, visions of network-aware dishwashers and coffeepots captured the popular imagination, but few developer dollars. Now, with WS-Discovery, Microsoft and Intel might have beaten Sun to a potential seat in the living rooms of millions of consumers, and, perhaps not coincidentally, bypassed Sun's Java platform that forms the foundation of Jini.

While Jini has yet to reach critical mass, the WS-Discovery concept will piggyback on the growing ubiquity of Web services. "The idea (of WS-Discovery) is very much the same as Jini," said Ron Schmelzer, an analyst with market research firm ZapThink. "The fundamental difference is that WS-Discovery has nothing to do with Java. It's the difference between 'write once, run anywhere' with Java and 'write once, access everywhere' with Web services."

The specification highlights the growing gulf between Microsoft and Sun over the future direction of software development technology. The two companies have a long, rancorous history when it comes to Web services.

Although Sun has been active in Web services, it didn't participate in the formation of the WS-Discovery spec, and it doesn't appear likely to do so. Simon Phipps, Sun's chief evangelist, criticized the spec because it hasn't been developed in an open, standards-based process. It was "created as a secret and proprietary activity by a would-be monopolist," Phipps told InfoWorld.

Those fighting words aside, analyst Schmelzer said the Jini concept failed to match its initial hype as a technology for consumer devices for one simple reason: It required a Java virtual machine to be installed everywhere, even on resource-constrained portable devices.

With WS-Discovery, "you can have C++ or Nokia's proprietary operating system sitting on your device, and as long as you can spit out a WS-Discovery message, it will be discovered," Schmelzer said.

Eventually, Microsoft will build the specification into Windows, meaning that it stands a good chance of becoming the industry standard for linking PCs to devices.
Even though it will be some time before the WS-Discovery specification finds its way into widely used commercial products, developers will most likely start experimenting with the software in the next few months.

Eventually, Microsoft will build the specification into Windows, meaning that it stands a good chance of becoming the industry standard for linking PCs to devices. The company has plans to make WS-Discovery a part of Indigo, the code name for new communications technology destined for Longhorn, the code name for the next major release of Windows.

But there are some potential bumps in the road for WS-Discovery. Like all other Web services-based technologies, the new specification uses Extensible Markup Language (XML), a notably inefficient and insecure method for exchanging data. That might not matter to consumers. But as the number of services mushrooms on corporate networks--potentially clogging servers and routers--administrators will soon begin to crack down by limiting access to those services, making their use more difficult and unwieldy.

But by then, if the two leading PC technology makers have their way, a new wave of Web services-enabled devices will have already hit the market. The new Jini will be out of the bottle.