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Web services getting ahead of itself

The ample selection of Web services initiatives to choose from fail to address the availability of usable data.

Web services. Never has such a nondescript moniker been attached to such a potentially grand concept.

The big idea, according to proponents, is the creation of processes that allow the exchange of data between applications over the Internet, thereby facilitating business-to-business e-commerce. Companies could, for example, expose their business processes over the Web to trading partners, a potentially important step toward integrating supply chains. The question mark that looms over Web services, however, does not involve the ingenuity of the idea so much as its timeliness.

The fact that some very large companies are jumping on the bandwagon -- Sun Microsystems, Oracle, IBM, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard among them -- should provide some encouragement. Yet another vendor, calling itself Grand Central, recently announced an innovation that it compares to a telephone switching system. Grand Central's Web Services Network, according to the company, is designed to provide three main capabilities: messaging between Web services, managing Web-service interfaces and organizing chains of Web services into inter-enterprise business processes.

All of which is very well and good except for one thing: neither Grand Central nor other garden-variety Web services initiatives address the main problem faced by B2B, namely, the availability of usable, or "transactionable," data. It is still up to individual participants in any B2B network to see to the usability of their data. The difficulty in achieving that goal is the main barrier to more widespread and successful participation in B2B today. It's as if Grand Central installed pipelines in a new development without attaching them to a source of water.

For content to be transactionable, or capable of supporting transactions, it must incorporate what Mike Hogan, vice president for strategy and development at POET Software, calls "the five C's": it must be clean, categorized, complete, customized and current. What does all this mean?

Cleanliness. "Data must be understandable by the general public," said Hogan, who is based in San Mateo, Calif. Abbreviations and acronyms mean different things to different back-office systems. "BL," for example, could mean blue, black or bill of lading, depending on the company.

Categorization. Data from multiple companies must be properly categorized so that product searches can yield meaningful results. But no single categorization scheme exists. "There are some broad-based categorization schemes," Hogan explained, "and there are a great number of vertical categorization schemes. But most companies have not yet categorized their data."

Completeness. Product data must include all of the features required for the customer to make an informed decision. For example it's not enough to describe a PC as having a P-III 800mHz, 20Gig HD and 256M Mem. "Even after expanding the abbreviations," said Hogan, "the buyer will want to know whether there is a CD-ROM drive, its speed, and whether it handles DVDs. What about the keyboard? The mouse? Software? Floppy drive? If the information isn't complete, the buyer cannot make a decision to buy."

Customization. Content must be customized to reflect the individual buyer's contract pricing, format and product selection. "Consider a company that has standardized on only four configurations of desktop computers from a single vendor at a deep discount," said Hogan. "If the electronic catalog contains incorrect configurations or prices, it simply won't work. Customization is a huge effort."

Currency. "If the data in the e-catalog is old, then it also won't work," said Hogan. "If it doesn't reflect new products and current pricing or if it includes retired products, it will cause problems for both buyers and sellers."

So, while it is interesting and exciting that technologists are introducing new architectures, it is arguable that they are putting the cart before the horse. Facilitating the flow of data without seeing to the readiness of the data itself fails to address critical business needs. Only when this content problem is addressed, might Web services become an important means for shuttling data among trading partners. Only then might Grand Central fulfill its vision to "revolutionize the way businesses operate, by allowing them to easily integrate their business processes with those of their customers, suppliers, distributors and partners."

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