Most software experts agree the vital cog to facilitating Web services
Microsoft, IBM and myriad other vendors use XML as the flawless cure-all.
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
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
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