Back in 1995, an enormous buzz took hold in the IT industry, as the popular emergence of the Web browser and the creation of Java seemed to have laid the foundations for a completely new form of computing. People started saying that the PC would be consigned to history within a year or two, replaced by Java-based browser applications delivered via cheap, networked appliances.
Fuelling the buzz was Java’s popularity with Web developers, who seized on it as a vehicle for building animation and interaction into their Web sites. But the knowledge that Java was good for developing lively Web content was hardly reassuring for enterprises wanting to know if they could run their businesses on it. As doubts emerged about its reliability, scalability and compatibility, Java struggled to contradict the view that it was good onlyfor Web page gimmicks.
Fast forward to 2001, and the advent of Web services is starting to sound just like 1995 all over again. All kinds of people — this writer included — are saying that Web services are the foundation of a completely new form of computing. Through the magic of standards such as XML, SOAP, and the like, component-based Web services are destined to gradually supplant and ultimately obsolete traditional standalone software applications. But the only live, operational Web services we can point to so far to back up our claims are just a handful of cool gimmicks for Web sites. Who is that going to persuade?
Xara’s World First
One example comes from Xara Online, the Web services subsidiary of Web graphics software vendor Xara, which publishes a range of Web site-enhancing Web services. As a demonstration of its Web services credentials, it has created what it describes as the world’s first graphic generator SOAP Web service, which uses its parent company’s 3D rendering software to instantly create anti-aliased 3D graphic headings.
The first customer for the service is Xara itself, which has used it to create an online demonstrator. To see it in action, click this link.
Of course, Xara has put its own branding on this demonstrator, but other customers don’t have to. Since the service is delivered using SOAP, they can embed it directly into their own online offerings — for instance, to add 3D graphics functions into an existing Web authoring or online presentation suite — and completely mask the fact that it executes on Xara Online’s servers. They can even look up the specifications in the public UDDI registries to check out whether it meets their requirements without ever having to contact Xara directly, except to hammer out commercial terms for ongoing use of the service.
This is the kind of standards-based accessibility to instant online functionality that people thought was just around the corner in 1995. Six years later, we’re finally starting to get there — ironically using not Java, but a standard pioneered by its anathema, Microsoft. SOAP allows providers to call up, for instance, Xara’s graphics rendering, Microsoft’s Passport authentication and ScreamingMedia’s content feeds, and integrate them in real-time within their existing online portfolio.
Adding Bells and Whistles
So far, so good. But it still boils down to adding new bells and whistles to our Web sites. True, Web sites are much more sophisticated and commercially significant than they were back in 1995. Amazon, eBay and Yahoo! have built major businesses out of Web Sites, and many traditional enterprises now depend on Web-based computing for significant elements of their operations. For Internet-based ASPs, the Web site is their channel to market and their sole delivery outlet.
But when it comes to mainstream business use, all the same kinds of doubts that hung over Java in 1995 hang over Web services today — doubts about security, integrity, reliability and interoperability, not to mention the question of how to measure and settle payments between providers. Just like Java back then, Web services today face a long haul before the majority of mainstream businesses will be prepared to entrust their core operations to this emerging new platform.
Nevertheless, the lessons of the past six years suggest that Web services will eventually succeed in earning that credibility. Back in 1995, while Java applets were making people sit up and look at the browser, the real progress was being made behind the scenes on the server. With the subsequent development of JavaBeans and the J2EE platform, Java is now at the heart of the component architecture on which the world’s leading application server platforms are built. It has won the trust and confidence of global enterprises.
Today, Web services are starting to make their impact with functionality delivered direct to the user through a Web site. But again, the real action is going to happen back in the network, as the industry works to build a robust commercial infrastructure for server-to-server Web service transactions. The achievements of the past six years have fulfilled many of 1995’s wildest aspirations. Expect the next to deliver a whole lot more.