Cambridge, Mass.-based Clear Methods is aiming to do something about the drawbacks of XML, and it has come up with a language and execution engine that, in a startup's dream, could replace .NET or Java-based products in some circles. Its approach is to take XML, which it claims Microsoft, IBM and Sun Microsystems use for show, and make it an executable tool to facilitate Web services for embedded systems devices such as handhelds, phones and other gadgets.
The firm has created an object-oriented language called Water to solve those bumps in the road to Web services, which include static representation, too many programming languages, ambiguity and verbosity, and perhaps most infamously, poor security. An execution environment written in Water called Steam serves as a Web services delivery engine for small devices that run embedded systems. Deployed on a standard Java platform as an applet, servlet, or stand-alone program, Steam aims to perform the same tasks as IBM's WebSphere, Sun's Java Virtual Machine of BEA's JRockit.
According to Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Mike Plusch, a "sip of Water" via Steam can replace any special purpose language. It runs on standard platforms, uses HTTP, FTP and SMTP protocols and supports Web services languages such as WSDL, UDDI and SOAP. Plusch said Water's attraction lies in its simplicity and purity, and in a spin on the "write once, run everywhere" mantra of Java, called it a "learn once, use everywhere" language.
Plusch said he saw that existing products, such as those built from Sun's J2EE architecture, were being "wrapped" in XML, meaning they were made to look good and generate lines of code. "The products would spit out XML and read in XML but the core execution was done by Java, which was wrapped in XML."
Plusch said Microsoft took Visual Basic and C# and bolted XML on the outside as well. "Still, Visual Basic or C# are an unnatural fit not designed for XML. So we see this as an opportunity for any new entrant with disruptive technology to enter the market place. What if you could use XML not just as a language, but as an executable modeling language -- not just for data presentations, but for your base code the way Java or .NET is used? Nobody had the notion of XML being executable."
Or, if they did, they didn't do anything about it. With Steam XML would perform many of the same tasks .NET- and Java-based products were meant for.
But Plusch and his four colleagues in the fledgling company don't see themselves as going head-to-head with the aforementioned industry giants. They're realistic, and as Plusch said "we obviously don't have $50 billion or whatever in the bank." But he is offering an alternative for those fed up with wares from Microsoft, Sun, IBM, or the other large firms.
"We're using a Judo strategy against Microsoft, using their strength against them by being more flexible and adaptable with something that doesn't cost a lot of money," Plusch said.
Steam is targeted at developers looking to fit small devices with a flexible execution system for an embedded system. Like a "fuel pump at a gas station," it powers a cell phone running games, and is primed for wireless connectivity.
But doesn't Microsoft offer their own embedded OS in Windows CE? Well, yes, Plusch said. But CE, he says, is precoded and static. Clear Methods, which counts Pratt & Whitney as a customer, sells to "small system" hardware or software vendors that want to have flexible Web services software.
What the analysts say
Analysts who spoke to internetnews.com clearly don't see Clear Methods as a threat to the 800-pound gorillas in the industry, but many are impressed by the technology.
ZapThink.com Senior Analyst Jason Bloomberg said Clear Methods' approach is an interesting one, albeit a challenge in a market where so many niche players are trying to develop Web services products that aim to complement or compete with software one of the giant vendors, such as Microsoft or IBM, don't have.
"Programmers can do object-oriented programming, middle tier programming, and presentation-layer programming, all with the same language, and it's all XML," Bloomberg said. "They have a solid approach to security and as you would expect, Web Services are a no-brainer."
ZapThink Senior Analyst Ronald Schmelzer agreed there are ways in which large companies can't take advantage of XML as small companies can, "and I think that's the story here. But that's the typical story for startups -- there's always opportunity to do things in a way that large vendors can't due to their size and flexibility."
Redmonk Senior Analysts Stephen O'Grady and James Governor were a bit more skeptical about the situation of niche players versus giants.
"It is hard to see David's stone even leaving the sling when it comes to building a major business as the "open XML document company"," Governor said. "Organizations have little choice but to support MS-generated business documents."
"As for the characterization of ClearMethods as David to Goliath, I think that's accurate, though it could be applied to probably a few hundred companies trying to chip away at the fringes of MS's product lines And we all know what the success rate is on these Davids - it's not a bet most would take," O'Grady said.
The history of Water and Steam
Plusch got the idea for the different approach to Web services via XML while he was a senior software architect with Bowstreet, along with Clear Methods Co-Founder and Chief Scientist Christopher Fry a couple years ago. At the time, Bowstreet was automating processes, but not from the homogeneous standpoint Plusch and Fry believe will work today, but from a heterogeneous, messy angle. Looking around at the way other firms were doing things, the colleagues left to start their own firm -- to simplify things.
Their approach was to attack important Web services features they found lacking, such as security. Plusch said most security systems deal with perimeter encryption going across the channel, often offering root access to systems. "We offer application level security. Instead of the Java Sandbox mentality, we provide access only to things you need to do your job. Think of it as a janitor. With Java or Microsoft environments, a janitor has several keys to get to where he needs to go. With application security, he gets access to a small shelf space. It's highly compartmentalized security in the operating system."
Plusch also noted that there is little waiting with Water and Steam, in terms of standards creation. He cited the case of the business transaction spec ebXML, noting that when standards are created they must often wait for language binders such as a Java library. "Water lets you roll your own -- there is no waiting around for a language library."
Pricing and availability
Clear Methods launched Steam 1.0 in January 2002 and is about to release version 3.5. The company sells its integrated developer environment at $1,000 per session, or $300 entry version. Steam, with unlimited applications and users costs $5,000 per CPU. Steam may also be purchased on a small scale, at $25 per application.