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Search for Web services leads to Google

The search specialist gets out ahead of industry giants by building a Web service that software developers can actually use.

Google may have accomplished something that few in the technology industry can even boast of understanding: building a Web service that software developers can actually use.

Focused on generating revenue from its technology as it prepares for an expected initial public offering, the search destination may have become a grassroots trailblazer.

When Google recently opened its technology so that third-party developers of much-hyped Web services can tie in to the company's catalog of 2 billion documents, it signaled its intentions to amass significant interest in its search tools among software programmers.

In the process, it may have written the equivalent of a road map for industry giants such as Microsoft, AOL Time Warner and Yahoo, which are grappling with various ways to energize their businesses through Web services but have crafted few tangible results.

Google released the application programming interface, or API, last month. Web services, the most hyped technology trend in a beleaguered tech industry these days, are meant to allow businesses with different computing systems to more easily interact and conduct transactions.

What separates Google's Web services approach from those of larger technology companies is that the search specialist has attempted to inspire developers through a relatively simple tool: an API that lets a developer tap into its search franchise. Though most initial uses of Web services are being built by corporations and might solve esoteric problems the public may never know of or care about, Google has taken the Web services concept and made it real for the software development community--an enviable task amid rampant confusion over just what a Web service is supposed to be.

"No one has caught the attention of developers the way Google has," said Jason Bloomberg, analyst with industry consultants ZapThink.

The Google offer appears to be among the first instances of an actual working Web service. Analysts downplayed its significance as a competitive weapon, though it clearly could create a warm and friendly relationship between Google and thousands of software developers strewn across cyberspace. Current uses of the Google Web API include a tool that can, among other things, search the company's database through instant messenger or send results of a search via e-mail.

"It's hard to quantify the real value of what Google's done," said Uttam Narsu, a vice president at industry consultant Giga Information Group. "It's like nature--you try a whole bunch of experiments and some of them fail, but some of them succeed.

"I would look at it as one big idea engine," Narsu said.

Showing the way?
At the time of the release in mid-April, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company said that 10,000 developers had signed up to use the API in just four days. But Google has since declined to give an update on interest in the API. "It continues to be successful, and it continues to grow," a Google representative said.

It could provide a way for thousands of commercial developers to use search in their software, therefore providing Google with a means to charge for its search service, widely considered the best such resource on the Web. Google provides search results based on relevancy, meaning that it returns a list of pages ranked by the number of other Web pages linking to that page, as well as other mathematical algorithms.

Each developer who downloads the Google API is limited to 1,000 queries on the Google database per day, the company said. Right now, the privilege is free for the limited number of searches, but down the road it could become a source of revenue for Google, particularly as it strikes deals with more third parties that need search services, exemplified by the company's new pact with AOL.

Developers are keen on Google's move, and they believe it could help the company win support among the Web's code warriors amid a scramble for just such support by large companies with Internet ambitions.

"It ties (Google) into the fabric of the World Wide Web just a little more, which is vital in a business ecosystem--the more developers pick this up, the more symbiotic the relationship," said Matt Webb, creator of the Googlematic Web search service for instant-messaging client software.

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It is this wave of interest in Google's API that might finally spark clarity among larger players in the industry. Microsoft, for one, has been fiddling with its Web services strategy and over-arching .Net software thrust for some time, seemingly unable to agree on what types of services consumers and corporations might want.

Microsoft recently launched a service that will allow a company to include maps with other information, but other efforts--particularly its consumer-oriented .Net My Services--have foundered. It also has an extensive Web presence via the MSN Web portal, making it a likely candidate to make early moves in the embryonic Web services market.

AOL Time Warner also has Web services ambitions, at one time code-named Magic Carpet, but the company has released few details, and a representative declined to comment on the company's Web services plans. One thing it has done is to align itself with the Liberty Alliance, a Sun Microsystems-driven effort.

Humble beginnings
Google says it has humbler ambitions for its early-stage Web service. "I don't think Google beat anybody in any sense," said Nelson Minar, the lead software engineer for the Web API project.

"The question is how does this affect the company?" Minar said. "Figuring out the economic model of doing searches--that's hard."

A Microsoft representative said the company has viewed Google's move with interest. "This is a really good example of what you can do with XML Web services," a representative said. Pressed to indicate whether the software colossus would follow suit, the representative said, "Microsoft doesn't have anything to announce at this time."

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Currently, existing businesses appear to be benefiting from Web services, according to Giga Information Group analyst Mike Gilpin. "When Web services first came along, we expected a 'business building' effect," he said. "That hasn't happened yet."

Rather, existing businesses have used Web services to provide a new feature or function. "They can add a Web service as a channel to what they already do," such as the search function offered by Google, Gilpin said.

By contrast, a company such as IBM might also be able to take advantage of Web services, according to Gilpin, since it is viewed as a service provider for corporate information among companies and could tailor a Web service to fit a particular corporate need.

By any stretch, however, Google's initial foray into the Web services market, dominated by huge but hazy expectations, is a small step in a much larger permutation of the software industry as it grapples with the possibilities of the Internet.

"It's something that's widely available, in production, and the general public seems to like it," ZapThink analyst Ron Schmelzer said. "Google has definitely energized a lot of forces."