The very core of Web services is agreed upon standards and specifications that vendors, hardware devices and software systems all adhere to, so that applications can automatically work with one another, no matter who built them and on top of any kind of technology.
Whoever controls standards, controls Web services.
But what are these standards and who controls them? Most people are no doubt familiar with the underlying core of standards, including SOAP, XML and UDDI among others. But that's just the basic underpinning; standards and specifications sit on top of them as well.
This column begins a two-part look at Web services standards and specifications. In this first part, we'll take a look at one of the most intriguing specifications to emerge -- the Device Profile for Web Services specification, authored by Microsoft, Intel, Lexmark International and Ricoh and recently released at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle.
Bringing Web services to consumers
Web services haven't yet gained a secure foothold in the enterprise, but already vendors are looking to extend them well beyond the firewall and business world -- directly to consumers. More than that, vendors are looking to use them in consumer devices of all kinds, not just PCs, in an attempt to make it easier to link the myriad devices making their ways into people's homes and pockets.
That's the idea behind the just-released Device Profile for Web Services specification. The concept behind the new spec is simple and almost as old as technology itself: How to allow any device to be automatically discovered, installed and utilized by other devices and on a network.
The new spec comes at a turning point of sorts for at-home and consumer technology. The days of standalone consumer digital devices have passed; the present and future is in networks. Today's WiFi networks are really only precursors, because digital devices will be connected wirelessly to larger networks and the Internet as well. Some way has to be found to simplify communications among devices and if Microsoft and its partners have their way, Web services will be that underpinning.
The Device Profile for Web Services specification is not entirely new; it builds upon and uses several existing Web services specifications, in particular WS-Discovery, introduced in February by Microsoft, Intel, Canon and BEA Systems; and WS-Eventing. Additionally, it uses the Windows Plug and Play subsystem for completing installation procedures -- essentially the same technology used today when you plug a USB devices into a Windows-based PC, and it is automatically recognized.
The specs beneath it
How would it all work together? Take the simple matter of a consumer installing a printer at home on a wired or wireless network. In the new scheme he plugs the printer in, and then connects it to the network. The printer uses WS-Discovery to send out a message to all the devices on the network telling them that the printer is here and ready to be installed. A PC hears the message and a wizard launches, installing the printer on the network.
Now let's say someone brings home a personal digital assistant (PDA), and wants to print out his calendar. Using WS-Discovery, the PDA sends a message out over the network looking for new hardware. It finds the printer and installs it. Then the user can go ahead and print.
WS-Discovery solves the problem of discovering and installing devices. WS-Eventing makes better use of them. So in the matter of the printer, it would allow two-way communications between the printer and any device using it, sending information about the printing job being done, including when the job was completed.
The specification would work with other Web services standards and specifications as well. Take an example of a wireless digital picture frame that automatically gets digital pictures delivered to it on a schedule so that the picture changes constantly. In the new scheme, plug it in and it send a WS-Discovery "Hello" message to the network telling the other devices that it's a picture frame and is available -- and those devices could then send it a scheduled stream of digital photos. And technology can reach beyond the home as well, for example, automatically connecting to a UDDI directory of repositories of digital photographs, and displaying those photos on the picture frame.
Looking beyond the home
While the specification is aimed squarely at consumers, it can also have significant business implications. Take manufacturing and the supply chain, for example. Today's factory floor and supply chain are dominated by devices that monitor and regulate the production process. Many can also inventory and link to the supply chain. If each of those devices were able to communicate with one another, and with enterprise applications such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Supply Chain Management (SCM) systems, the efficiencies that could be introduced would be tremendous. Using the Device Profile for Web Services specification, no complex setup would be needed for discovering, installing and using those devices enterprise-wide, and even beyond the enterprise.
All this may sound new, but in fact, the idea behind it has been around for quite some time. Sun Microsystems proposed a similar idea in the late 1990s called Jini that would automatically link devices to each other and to networks. It was based on Java, rather than Web services standards. Jini never really got off the ground, though, and so once again Sun finds itself in a situation in which it's at the losing end of a war with Microsoft.
Putting it into effect
To use the new specification, Microsoft has announced the Network Connected Device Driver Development Kit (DDK), which can be used to build devices that adhere to the Device Profile for Web Services specification.
Because the DDK was only just released, don't expect hardware based on the Device Profile for Web Services specification it to appear any time soon. Most likely, there won't be much until the release of the next version of Windows, called Longhorn, probably some time in 2006. Web services technologies will be baked directly into Longhorn and it's at that point this specification will really take hold.
By the way, if you're interested in more information about the specification, check out this white paper.
And if you want a free copy of the beta DDK, it's available for request from https://beta.microsoft.com, as well as at www.microsoft.com/windows/default.mspx, listed under "Network Connected Devices."
Continues in Part Two
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About the Author
Preston Gralla, a well-known technology expert, is the author of more than 20 books, including "How the Internet Works," which has been translated into 14 languages and sold several hundred thousand copies worldwide. He is an expert on Web services and the author of a major research and white paper for the Software and Information Industry Association on the topic. Gralla was the founding managing editor of PC Week, a founding editor and then editor and editorial director of PC/Computing, and an executive editor for ZDNet and CNet. He has written about technology for more than 15 years for many major magazines and newspapers, including PC Magazine, Computerworld, CIO Magazine, eWeek and its forerunner PC Week, PC/Computing, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Dallas Morning News among others. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.