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Apple and Web services, part two

We take a closer look at WebObjects, and the direction that Apple may be taking with regard to Web services.

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Continued from Part One

Apple and Web services
Apple has been behind the curve when it comes to Web services technology, but its November 2002 release of its WebObjects development platform, which includes the ability to create and support Web services, was a step forward in the company's not-yet-defined plan for making its mark in the Web services market.

In this second part of a two-part column looking at Apple and Web services, we'll take a closer look at WebObjects, and see what its capabilities say about the direction that Apple may be taking with regard to Web services.

Where it all began
WebObjects 5.2 is the latest iteration of a technology that has its roots in another Steve Jobs company — Next Software. When Apple acquired Next Software, and Jobs returned to the Apple fold, WebObjects came along for the ride as part of the deal. In its earlier days, the software was targeted at the high end — in fact, at one time it cost $50,000, while today its price has plummeted to a more palatable $699.

Developers who have used WebObjects for some time praise in particular two aspects of the program — the way it separates data access, business logic and user interface creation; and the simplicity with which applications can be built using it. Ricardo Parada, System Architect with Medical Present Value, Inc. a healthcare financial services company based in San Antonio and Austin, Texas, is a long-time WebObjects developer, and is an enthusiastic user of the program.

"One of the things important to me about WebObjects is its ability to partition the application between business logic, data access logic, and the user interface," he says. "There are a lot of tools out there for writing Web applications, but WebObjects is ahead of other tools for doing this, and does a far better job of managing complexity. It's also relatively simple to write a Web service, and comes with an application that lets you graphically define the parameters," for defining different Web services, he says.

It's only in the most recent iteration of WebObjects that it gained the ability to work with XML and SOAP to develop and deploy Web services. Web services created with the most recent version, WebObjects 5.2, are interoperable with applications written in Java, AppleScript, Perl and .NET. This is a key point, because it opens up Web service application development to a new kind of programmer who previously have not been able to tap into Web services.

Also key is that the software includes tools that allow applications to be developed without actually having to write code. Prototypes can be built quickly using drag-and-drop operations. So Web services can be created without having to write to low-level SOAP, XML or WSDL. Additionally, the program's Enterprise Object Modeler can in essence reverse-engineer existing data assets and build a server-based application that exposes those assets as Web services. The software can be used to deploy Web services on Java 2 Enterprise Edition application servers including those from IBM and BEA Systems Inc. Web services built with the software can also be deployed to the WebObjects Java 2 Standard Edition application server, included with the product. WebObjects can also be used to build applications in addition to Web services, such as database applications that use HTML, XML, SMIL or Java front-ends.

The analysts aren't convinced
Although WebObjects has a loyal following, it's still a relatively unknown tool among enterprise developers and those in large corporations. Apple has not done a particularly good job of evangelizing for the software, or for attempting to win the hearts and minds of corporate America.

"I don't really see much of a role for WebObjects," in large enterprises, says Ron Schmelzer, founder and senior analyst of the ZapThink consulting group. "I don't see it being used to develop enterprise-wide CRM applications or other enterprise applications."

Apple has not been visible on any standards committees, and has been largely invisible when it comes to touting its Web services strategy, or in promoting WebObjects. And that's nothing new. In fact, for years analysts have been warning that Apple has not done an adequate job of marketing WebObjects to corporations. Back in 1999, Forrester Research analyst Josh Walker told News.com: "We don't see them (Apple) in the enterprise at all. They're not taken seriously. It's (WebObjects) a very popular platform, but they're not putting the marketing dollars behind it. It may be the best-kept secret. But Apple seems to be keeping it a secret as well."

Support for Web services at Apple's core
Apple has also quietly built Web services technology into Mac OS X (10.1) using Apple events, the same Apple events that can be used to script the Finder. This AppleScript support is a plus for developers, because they don't have to download a separate toolkit, and don't have to make sure that those who will use the finished application have support for that toolkit. Support is in the operating system itself.

As detailed in my previous column, Sherlock's redone search tool, delivered with the Jaguar update to OS X, delivers a wide variety of information and services to users via XML, including MovieFone movie listings, access to eBay auctions, and to the YellowPage.com site — and developers can easily write new plug-ins for the service. It may be the most popular use of XML anywhere. In addition to that, FileMaker includes support for XML as well.

All this is significant Apple support for Web services. Given all that, plus the loyalty of WebObject developers, support for Web services in the heart of OS X, and FileMaker's XML support, you would expect that Apple would be seen as being in the forefront of Web services development. Instead, it's nowhere to be seen. That has less to do with technology itself than it has to do with the company's not publicly pursuing Web services and appearing to be uninvolved with helping determine the future of the technology. So whether Apple will ultimately be a player in the industry — and whether corporate America will begin using its Web services technology — depends to a great extent on whether Apple decides to apply resources to it. The technology is there. The loyalty is there. The only remaining question is, will Apple be there?

Editor's Note: If you're using Apple products to build Web services, drop me an email to let us know what your experience has been. Or maybe you'd just like to comment or opine, if so, we'd love to hear from you, too. For more information, you may also wish to visit the the Web Services area of Apple's developer site. --Brent Sheets, Site Editor.

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. As a well-known technology guru, he appears frequently on TV and radio shows and networks, including CNN, MSNBC, ABC World News Now, the CBS Early Show, PBS's All Things Considered and others. He has won a number of awards for his writing, including from the Computer Press Association for the Best Feature in a Computer Publication. He can be reached at preston@gralla.com.

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