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Time, industry support will help Web services succeed

Web services are likely to emerge in a much more orderly fashion than the chaotic spawning of ASPs, writes columnist Peter Buxbaum.

Once again, the latest and greatest technology development comes along and it is necessary to cut through the hype in search of reality. When it comes to the phenomenon of "Web services," here's one item of consolation: if you are confused by it all, you are not alone. Some more good news: you have some time to get up to speed.

Those are two conclusions I've drawn from preliminary results of a survey taken by The Stencil Group, an IT research firm. Although the results have yet to be published, or even fully analyzed for that matter, Stencil partner Brett Sleeper agreed to share what he has with me, and with you. By way of bona fides, 90 people participated in the Stencil survey, about 70 of those business or technology executives at mid-sized to large corporations.

The responses to the first question in the survey, "How would you characterize the 'Web services' concept?" is telling right off the bat. Participants had the following choices:

  • Application integration and messaging protocol
  • Functionality and content syndication
  • Hosted, "software as service" business model
  • Software component development framework
  • Universal "cloud" for storing data and information
  • None, not sure, other

About half the respondents chose the first and half chose the third alternative. Sleeper would disagree with those results on a factual basis. The correct answer, as far as he is concerned, is No. 4, "Software component development framework." More on that a little later.

To the question, "Are Web services a promising development, or are they mostly hype?" the overwhelming majority answered that Web services are the real thing, said Sleeper. The only problem is, if the participants don't really know what Web services are, how are they supposed to evaluate their potential?

And in answer to "When do you expect to begin realizing business value from Web services?" most respondents said that they would begin pilot projects within the next six to nine months and to see measurable ROI within 18 months. That level of sobriety was reassuring to Sleeper, who frets that an early peaking of Web services euphoria could doom the entire enterprise as unfulfilled promises bring everyone crashing back down to earth.

Well, so far we have group of people who should know what Web services are but don't believing that they are very promising and expecting a measurable ROI in the foreseeable future. Not a reassuring picture from my perspective but not nearly enough to get Brett Sleeper down, who acquits himself admirably as a rosy optimist.

I asked Sleeper about the problem of data readiness. This issue, the subject of my last column on Web services, questions whether infrastructure development can cure the lack of readiness of most business data to participate in e-business. Sleeper acknowledged the problem but added, "This represents a real opportunity for companies to go in and provide solutions." Agreed. But will they?

The fact that half the respondents described Web services incorrectly as a "hosted, 'software as service' business model" (which is Sleeper's description of an ASP), shows the potential for confusion between Web services and application service providers. "Both deliver software as a service," he allowed.

But that is where the similarity ends, he said. Sleeper characterizes ASPs as a "business model" while Web services represent a "technology solution." "ASPs represent an alternative to shipping a software CD-ROM to the customer by hosting an application inside a Web browser," he said. "Web services are really bunch of specialized applets that allow systems integration over a network."

Sleeper views ASPs as an iffy business model that proliferated, in part, as a result of an abundance of indiscriminate venture capital. And, like ASPs, Web services could attract a raft of startups with dubious credentials that will ultimately fail.

But on that last score, we all have reason to share Sleeper's optimism. For one thing, venture capitalists these days are not funding every business plan that makes it to the printed page. And second, Web services are likely to emerge in a much more orderly fashion than the chaotic spawning of ASPs. Growing out of IBM's middleware products and supported by giants like IBM and Microsoft, Web services are likely to emerge as a legitimate and long-lasting technology model.

But it's just not going to happen right away. So study up, learn and understand. Just don't get overly exultant right now or you may be setting yourself up for a fall.

This column originally appeared on


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