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The Battle for Web Services

The Battle for Web Services

Everyone wants Web services standards.

  • CEOs think the technology will create new opportunities.
  • CFOs believe it will save millions.
  • Vendors see a pot of gold at the end of the Web services rainbow.
  • And CIOs know that linking to customers and partners over the Internet will revolutionise both business and IT.

So what's the hold-up?

The usual suspects: Politics. Ego. Suspicion. Fear. Greed.

It's already a given: Your company is going to waste money on Web services.

Research company Gartner predicts businesses are going to squander $US1 billion on misguided Web services projects by 2007 in the US alone. Exactly how much of that will come out of your pocket depends in part on how many confusing, overlapping Web services standards emerge in the next few years.

Right now, it looks like there's going to be a lot of them.

The Web services standards process began to fall apart this year. No fewer than four organisations - Liberty Alliance, Oasis, W3C and WS-I - are vying to preside over the process, each with different goals, each with differing degrees of power and influence.

And two opposing camps of vendors have emerged: an uneasy alliance of IBM and Microsoft versus nearly everyone else. Both groups are busy duplicating each other's work.

Both are proposing Web services specifications - some proprietary, some not - with unclear patent and licensing implications for CIOs. In an arena as complex as Web services, confusion is not a good thing. But right now, that's the situation.

The Web services vision is grand: a universal set of communications protocols to enable computer systems and business processes to seek each other out over the Internet, lonely hearts style, and have deep, meaningful interactions with no human intervention. Even in today's rudimentary state, Web services standards such as simple object access protocol, or SOAP , are proving to be valuable integration technologies. A Gartner survey of 110 companies found that 54 per cent are already working on Web services projects or have plans to begin soon, and IDC estimates that companies will do $US2.2 billion worth of Web services projects in 2003 and $US25 billion in 2008.

"The potential revenue impact of these standards is enormous," says Whit Andrews, research director for Gartner. But the very size of that financial prize waiting for the winners of the Web services standards competition makes it "difficult to remain involved in a standards effort that involves your competitor", he adds. Gartner goes so far as to predict that the alliance between IBM and Microsoft will break down by the end of this year, given that the companies are direct competitors in the application server and database markets that make the biggest use of Web services.

"That's silly," responds IBM spokesman Steven Eisenstadt. Steven VanRoekel, Microsoft's director of platform strategy, says: "I couldn't speculate on how long things will go [between Microsoft and IBM]."

And what about the users? Where are the CIOs?

Some companies have got involved with the standards-setting organisations, including financial services heavyweights such as Fidelity Investments and JP Morgan Chase, as well as some forward-thinking manufacturers such as GM and health-care giant Kaiser Permanente. But they remain the minority in organisations that, by default, are overwhelmingly dominated by vendors.

"CIOs haven't got involved because it's a big time commitment, so they say: 'You vendors figure it out'," says Eric Austvold, research director for AMR Research. "That's like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse."

If CIOs continue to stand on the sidelines, they may very well end up with no chickens, forced to choose from among multiple Web services standards that may not interoperate, may have limited lifespans, and may come with fees or other onerous patent and licensing requirements.

And if so, CIOs can start ticking off their shares of that wasted $US1 billion right now.

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