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The Web services shell game

Iona CTO Eric Newcomer says the process of adopting standards has become more about furthering the control of established software companies than about realizing the many promises of Web services technology.

Open. Interoperable. Reusable. Flexible.

These are just some of the words that most software vendors have applied to describe the importance, appeal and future of Web services. Similarly, corporations have applauded the attempt by the software industry to finally standardize its offers, thereby eliminating the islands of information and systems that exist within nearly every Global 2000 organization.

The last two years have seen Web services move from hype to reality. Some of the world's largest companies have invested in and embraced Web services as the future architecture of their IT systems. Gartner predicts that by 2004, 70 percent of Global 2000 companies will have experimented with Web services. The popular opinion among IT executives is that Web services technology has been overhyped in the short term, but its long-term value will in hindsight be viewed as underhyped.

However, today we sit at a fork in the road of Web services evolution. There are two paths that the industry can take, with each path leading to a distinct and different future. One road leads to a truly standardized world where corporations fully reap the benefits of Web services by untangling the "spaghetti mess" of IT systems. The second road leads back to yesteryear, where proprietary systems ruled the day, maximizing vendor service and maintenance revenue, and killing end-user flexibility and return on investment.

To accomplish software-industry standardization, vendors have to shift focus from selling proprietary products with a "standards compliant" label on them to focus instead on cooperating to create a larger market based on truly standardized products. Part of the problem is knowing where to draw the line between what is appropriate for standardization and what should remain as a basis for competition. Another part of the problem has to do with the changing business environment that results from standardization.

Many industries have gone through this process, such as standardized media formats in CD and DVD entertainment systems. Yet despite many attempts, the software industry remains a craft business, relying on individual knowledge and skills relative to disparate and incompatible operating systems, middleware systems, and development environments.

There are two paths that the industry can take, with each path leading to a distinct and different future.

The core standards--SOAP (Standard Object Access Protocol), WSDL (Web Services Description Language) and UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery and Integration)--have been widely adopted and endorsed. But now the fight is moving to the next level, and it's turning out to be much harder to gain consensus on significant next-level features such as security, transactions, reliable messaging, management and orchestration. Some software vendors base their entire businesses on one or more of these higher-level features, while others fight strongly to differentiate themselves from the competition by delivering better implementations of them.

The path we take to the future may well depend upon the outcome of the current standoff around intellectual property rights in two key areas: orchestration and reliable messaging. Some of the vendors developing specifications for these areas are raising the question of possibly charging patent or royalty payments for the rights to implement the specifications. The leading standards bodies, and traditional industry practice around software standards to date, tend to favor royalty-free implementations.

What's needed is agreement that the potential Web services market is bigger than all of our current markets put together. Some vendors prefer to draw the standardization line where it currently sits, with SOAP, WSDL and UDDI. But customers correctly say that this isn't enough to realize the promise of Web services technology, and widely adopted, open specifications at the next level are necessary.

Established vendors quite naturally try to subjugate the greater good and customer benefit for their proprietary self-interests. Market leaders often introduce new specifications under the guise of better industrywide standardization, when in actuality they are concerned about mapping the specifications to their own product sets. The goal is to blur the line between their products and what is accepted as the standard, so that they can sell their software as "standards based."

The market leaders are scared that comprehensively adopted Web services standards will change the economics of the software industry and make their investments in current products unsustainable. The choice for these vendors is to start over and risk losing market share or to try and control the revolution. Not surprisingly, these companies choose the latter option.

The path we take to the future may well depend upon the outcome of the current standoff around intellectual property rights in two key areas: orchestration and reliable messaging.

It's ironic that software vendors propose standards in the name of benefiting their customers while still trying to maintain control over the specification adoption and evolution process in support of their own interests. We may well have to wait for the business community to take control and break the impending logjam. It's very possible that the Web services standards effort will continue to flounder until businesses truly start using Web services to talk with one another as often and frequently as they use the fax and phone, and start to put real purchasing pressure on the vendors to provide truly open, standards based products.

The promise and goal of Web services is to unlock the door to past IT investments, change the proprietary nature of new software offers, and radically change the economics of the software industry. Those ideals face tough challenges in 2003.