Web services are an evolution that brings the vast benefits of service oriented architectures to the mass market.
Service oriented architectures have existed for a long time -- DCE and CORBA are examples of earlier service oriented architectures. The biggest problem with earlier attempts was that they were initially only suitable for rocket scientists and software gurus (in reality, a small market). A small market opportunity leads to lack of vendor adoption and poor to non-existent tools (a catch-22 situation since, without broad adoption and good tools, the market can't easily be grown). This forced companies that wanted to leverage the benefits of service oriented architectures to spend vast sums building and maintaining their own infrastructure and tools -- something only the largest IT organizations could afford.
Web services adopted the ideas behind the earlier service oriented architectures, but built on broadly adopted, easily understood, foundations: XML and HTTP. Web services, by keeping it simple but flexible, have been able to leverage the strength of the adoption, and the quality of the tools, in these foundation areas -- leading to the current upward spiral of growth.
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