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Web services: Few actually deliver

Shrink-wrapped software is dead! Long live software as a service! That's likely to be the 2001 battle cry of software vendors, though they may have a ways to go.

Shrink-wrapped software is dead. Long live software as a service.

That's likely to be the 2001 battle cry of software vendors. Many of them spent 2000 laying the groundwork for writing, distributing and using a new generation of Internet-enabled software.

As the year drew to a close, vendors were racing to one-up each other, each claiming the best strategy for delivering on its Web services promises. In 2001, look for developers and some bleeding-edge customers to put vendors' claims--and early versions of their Web services wares--to the test.

Defining terms
At the moment, Web services are vaguely defined. For some companies, they are the infrastructure for future software applications and encompass directory, security, policy-management and other related services. For others, they are the protocols--such as Extensible Markup Language (XML), Universal Description Discovery and Integration (UDDI), and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP)--that more tightly couple software applications.

For still others, Web services are the content that rides on top of the protocols--things like travel booking, currency translation and weather report services. And for a few, they are all those components plus the applications designed to run them over the Internet.

"People already are using the Web for services," said Summit Strategies analyst Dwight Davis. "For example, lots of people are using Hotmail. The question is about the level of integration and sophistication of these Web services."

Microsoft has held up its free email service as an example of a Web service-style application that uses the company's Passport Internet-authentication service. Both developers and customers will expect Web services to work together seamlessly, as vendors have claimed they would when discussing their Web services visions, Davis said.

So are the industry leaders onto a hot trend? Or are the emperors parading around without clothes?

Gartner noted in a market report in October that nearly every company making a play for enterprise customers had either introduced or said it would introduce a Web services strategy.

Sun Microsystems, although not known first and foremost as a software vendor, will be one of the last to unveil its end-to-end Web services vision in early 2001.

Sun executives maintain that the company was first to acknowledge the importance of services, ever since it coined the slogan "the network is the computer." But Sun's framework for tying together Java, Jini and the protocols they support won't be unveiled until the first quarter of next year, executives acknowledged.

Promises to keep
Meanwhile, companies that announced Web services strategies in 2000 will have to scramble to deliver on their myriad promises. That category includes Microsoft, which announced its Windows .Net strategy in June, and Oracle, which went public with its Dynamic Service Framework in December.

Hewlett-Packard and IBM, too, are expected to use the coming year to put more flesh on their respective Web services bones.

HP, as a number of analysts have acknowledged, was one of the first companies to outline a comprehensive vision for Web services with its "E-speak" application. Recently, however, the company has focused less on the grandiose vision and more on the concrete delivery details. The best evidence of that was a late-year decision to join backers of the UDDI standard, a proposed Yellow Pages for companies that want to do business electronically.

IBM, for its part, has a lot of the building blocks in place to deliver services over the Web. While it doesn't have a catchy name for its Web services application--its "Application Framework for e-business" is not especially compelling--Big Blue does support all the related standards.

Like Microsoft, IBM has tools as well as WebSphere and other middleware servers to provide the back-end infrastructure needed by Web services developers. Unlike Microsoft, IBM is shipping it all today. So far, IBM has yet to deliver Web services themselves, and it's unclear if the company intends to do so. Stay tuned in 2001.

.Net or .Nyet?
Speaking of Microsoft, the Redmond, Wash., software juggernaut is likely to be the most closely scrutinized of all Web services players, since it has been the most vocal about its intentions to dominate the software-as-service market.

Microsoft shipped nearly all of the .Net Enterprise servers that it promised it would deliver in 2000 and trotted out a first beta of its .Net framework as part of its Visual Studio .Net tool suite.

Going into 2001, Microsoft is expected to continue to beat the .Net drum and to trumpet what's expected to be its first non-Windows play for .Net: the porting of its .Net Compact Framework to applications that don't require an operating system (think refrigerators, not Palm handhelds), say sources close to the company. This should occur sometime in the first half of next year.

But Microsoft needs more of a cross-application strategy if it's serous about proving that it's a Web services, not just a "Windows services," company, industry watchers said.

One developer dabbling with Visual Studio .Net said he understood Microsoft's vision for .Net--"to provide a standardized 'Web API' (application programming interface) for developers to design, develop and migrate services and applications functionality to the Internet using existing standards...to achieve a 'universal development platform.'"

Nevertheless, said the developer, who requested anonymity, "until .Net is ported--if it ever is--to existing Unix and legacy platforms, I don't believe that many existing development departments and businesses who aren't using Wintel platforms will find all that much compelling about the .Net environment to make them undertake a platform switch to Wintel."