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Web services face same struggle as ASPs

Web services face same struggle as ASPs

The Web services market may be hot today, but according to a new report from analyst firm Gartner, unless clear answers to real problems replace today's hype, the industry may quickly rise and fall like the application service provider (ASP) market did.

Ben Pring, chief analyst for Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner and co-author of "Lessons Web services companies must learn from ASPs," said Web services excitement is growing because Microsoft and other major players are making promises similar to those that won the ASP industry so much attention in 1997 and 1998.

Back then, said Pring, ASPs heralded a move toward componentized, reusable software as an alternative to rigid, in-house client-server applications. It's a message today's Web services vendors are echoing. Today's Web services vendors are trumpeting a similar message, focusing on interoperability and easier integration, with the same fervor.

However, customer reluctance to outsource mission-critical applications and tasks as well as an overall market downturn led to a massive consolidation that knocked the majority of pure-play ASPs out of the market. Today, most successful ASPs either focus on a specific market niche or are a branch of a larger company.

Could the Web services market suffer the same fate?

Pring said Web services, which are modular, Internet-enabled software components that exchange data with each other without human intervention, will ride their current wave of popularity for some time, despite the fact that many consultants and integrators feel threatened by Web services.

"Those are the people who make their living out of solving the problems that Web services and ASPs are and were trying to address," said Pring. "They say they publicly support anything that moves the market toward components and integratable applications," but many of those companies do not favor Web services because they would erode much of their profitable application integration market.

Pring said in a best-case scenario for integrators, or a worst-case scenario for Web services customers, secure and public Web services would never be widely implemented due to unforeseen technical complications and underdeveloped standards.

Though IT behemoths like Microsoft and Sun would be moderately affected by the failure of public Web services, smaller vendors counting on Web services implementation profits would be forced to fold up shop en masse, leaving customers with incomplete or ineffective Web services.

That scenario, which would mirror the ASP market, could play out several years from now. Pring said vendors could prevent it if they strive to articulate exactly the types of IT problems Web services are designed to fix.

"Vendors who are proponents of Web services are not very good at discussing the problems inherent in the industry for the fear that they get mixed up as being producers of these problems themselves," said Pring.

He also said customers have a "huge role" to play by pressuring vendors to be honest about what Web services can and can't do.

"Too often users are ticked off and don't fight back or push the vendors hard enough," Pring said. "I think they really need to push the industry and say 'If you're coming to me with this fantastic solution, what's the real problem it's trying to solve?'"

The report, "Lessons Web services companies must learn from ASPs," is available from Gartner for $495.


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