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If you weren't there, a couple of years from now you'll misremember and say you were. That's how big - how momentous - Web Services Edge 2001 West and XMLEdge were.

Call that late October conference in Santa Clara the Woodstock of Web services because this is the one everyone wishes they has attended. The reason is simple: Web services has gone mainstream and suddenly, a concept that even proponents were admitting as recently as six months ago was spacey verging on vaporous, is now emerging as the next must-have by enterprise IT groups. Bottom line: Web services got sexy and it all happened in late October.

Hold on, because lots more happened in that same week. The Redmond Goliath weighed in, for instance, with an October 23 announcement laying out its view of XML architecture for Web services - at a sprawling developers conference in Los Angeles, where chairman Bill Gates dramatically demonstrated Microsoft's .NET, the Web services platform Microsoft is betting on heavily. But the bigger point is that, unmistakably, Microsoft sees Web serices as a central part of computing's future.

Meantime, in the very same week, Sun Microsystems and its CEO Scott McNealy gave developers a look at the Sun ONE Web services strategy, and this wasn't just an opportunity for McNealy to take jabs at his .NET nemesis (although, of course, there was plenty of that, too). The Sun leader unveiled new and significant tools, including the Sun ONE Starter Kit, a package that promises to give developers what they need to start doing meaningful work in Web services.

The amazing fact: all that happened in the same few days - the Web Services Edge West conference, Microsoft's PDC, Sun unveiling its Web services strategy - and when all that activity is added up, there's no doubt: "Web services is at an inflection point," proclaims Nathaniel Palmer, Delphi Group chief analyst.

Web services, adds Steve Chazin, director of marketing for Bowstreet, an enterprise software developer, has become today's IT cover story and "2002 is poised to become 'The year of Web services.'"

Lico Talamantes, a senior consultant with SEI Information Technology, puts it even more directly: "Web services technology is ready to rock the marketplace."

More proof is that early in November 2001, a parade of IT heavyweights lined up to issue their own Web services announcements. SAP, for instance, debuted mySAP; BEA announced Liquid Data; Borland announced new Java-based tools; Oracle unveiled Oracle9i JDeveloper; and IONA unveiled Orbix E2A, a platform built from the ground up with Web services in mind and which,according to IONA, bridge the .NET - J2EE divide.

Whew, it's been hectic, but know this: "In the last 45 days we've seen a major shift in customer interest," says Steve Benfield, CTO of SilverStream Software and a keynote speaker at Web Services Edge West. A message he hammers home: "Customers now believe that Web services can help solve their problems. Web services," he adds, "will change the world."

That is a catchphrase that emerged from the conference and while Web services leaders may - and do - debate key points about how to deploy Web services, there's an emerging consensus that customers will line up to put in orders because they've now realized that Web services is the fast-track way to economically solve key problems.

"Companies - potential customers - couldn't quite get their arms around Web services, but that definitely is changing," observes Eileen Richardson, CEO of Infravio, a Web services developer, and a conference panelist. "Customers," says Richardson, "are seeing in Web services a route to increased productivity coupled with lower costs."

"What customers can expect from Web services, even today, is a real solution that can lower the cost of integration," adds Victoria Schmidt, a product marketer with IONA.

"Customers have spent an incredible amount on IT in the last decade. They want to leverage their investments to achieve new values," says Peter Graf, vice president, marketing, for SAP. "They want to find ways to use their IT infrastructure to reach outside the enterprise. That's why Web services is so significant. Web services lets you keep the systems you've invested in but use them to drive new values."

Why? How? Answer those questions by stepping back to the key themes put forth at Web Services Edge West and a big one is this: "Web services is the thing that lets the three last big things work," says David Chappell, vice president and chief technology evangelist at Sonic Software and another conference keynote speaker, citing Daryl Plummer of the Gartner Group. He adds that a key factor in driving enthusiasm about the future of Web services is that never before has there been so much agreement in the IT community. "For the first time in our lives, every major player in IT is behind one initiative," and with that much computing and marketing muscle behind Web services, there's ample reason for everybody - developers and customers alike - to stay optimistic, says Chappell.

A related fact: "When major vendors collaborated to push Web services standards, the industry began to notice," said Ben Brauer, product marketing manager for Hewlett-Packard's Web services operation.

A second crucial idea: "XML is based on free and open standards," said Charles Goldfarb, the father of XML, who delivered the opening keynote at the conference. What that means is simple: by using XML, various enterprise apps will be able to easily talk with each other, inside and outside the enterprise. Can they now? Not quite. Bits of enabling technology need to be standardized, but don't fasten on that because another big message from the conference is this: "If you are focusing only on technical details, you are missing the point," says Sean Rhody, editor-in-chief of Web Services Journal and a conference panel moderator. Exciting as the technology may be, and certainly there remain details to be worked out - this is something of a work in progress. But no matter, insists Rhody, because, more importantly, "Web services is a paradigm shift. With Web services, companies can do new, very interesting things that transform the enterprise."

Is all copacetic with Web services proponents? Don't think that because - as vividly demonstrated at the conference and also by the dueling Sun and Microsoft announcements in the same week - there remain large points of disagreement. Is this cause for fretting that the Web services bubble is about to burst? Don't believe that, not at all. The disagreements, in fact, underline the tumultuous vibrancy that characterizes a community that recognizes it is center stage in IT.

Just where do proponents disagree? Conference attendees heard many points of dispute and concern.

  • Where are the customers hiding?
    One overarching fact is that as much as there is buzz now about Web services, firm orders are still lagging. But hold on since, predicts Rhody, that will change, and fast, even in the current torpid IT marketplace. "Within six to twelve months, this market will mature," he predicts.

  • All new, or old wine in a new bottle?
    A key point of debate: Are Web services a new, new thing? Proponents of the viewpoint that Web services is revolutionary include Annrai O'Toole, chairman of Cape Clear Software, and IONA CEO Barry Morris. Or is Web services an evolutionary extension of proven IT capabilities - a viewpoint firmly held by David Chappell, for instance: "Web services has evolved out of existing technologies. SOAP has been around since the mid-90s." Guess what? Just maybe this fight, one of the liveliest at the conference, will be mainly of interest to IT historians because in the trenches, where customers are making decisions, Web services looks to be a wholly new way of enabling applications to work together in ways that previously seemed unimaginable. Is that revolution or evolution? Probably the customer doesn't care, not if Web services deliver on the promise of easier, low-cost integration.

  • Will the IT power structure change?
    Another hot button at the conference: Barry Morris' assertion that, with Web services, "you're going to see the power structure of our industry change." While Morris sees the new platform as opening tremendous opportunities for players that are comparatively small today, other conference attendees - while seeing potential for smaller players to earn big profits with Web services - nonetheless expressed belief that today's IT leaders, from BEA to SAP, Oracle, and IBM, will likely continue to reap the greatest rewards as they aggressively move into Web services. Who's right? Time will tell but perhaps the key take-away thought is that, huge profits will be earned by companies that articulate an early but coherent strategy for helping enterprises put Web services to work. This isn't just about .NET versus J2EE (and as Annrai O'Toole told conference attendees, "Everyone is bored with Java versus .NET.").

  • Are Web services overpromised?
    Even some of Web services' biggest fans openly wonder if the technology's capabilities are overpromised: "Web services are expected to be integration nirvana," says Hitesh Seth, chief technology evangelist at Silverline Technologies, an e-business consulting firm. That, as Seth points out, is probably not realistic. Web services will bring useful results but this is no silver bullet, say those who want the industry to adopt a go-slower stance. Others are more optimistic; a case in point is Benfield, who readily admits that Web services once were overhyped, "but companies now are finding ways to deploy Web services that produce real results and the reality is that Web services let one machine talk to other machines. That's important." The take-away thought of conference attendees here is simple: promise only what Web services already can deliver because that will be plenty to stoke interest on the part of the large enterprises that are the first-wave target customers.

  • B2B on steroids?
    Call this the most closely watched point of contention. Will Web services allow enterprises to easily use commonplace tools (XML and UDDI for service lookup) to find and expand B2B relationships - that is, will Web services help companies to effortlessly find new suppliers and even customers? Some Web services advocates think this is the next wave; others are more skeptical. Either way, Benfield, an ardent advocate of the benefits of the UDDI lookup capabilities, concedes that first deployments likely will be "inside the organization" - that is, Web services will let companies soup up their intranets. But as those test-beds show powerful results, watch out, suggests Benfield. A revived B2B marketplace may be a byproduct of today's Web services technologies.

  • Just how easy is easy?
    A last, intriguing point of debate: How easy will and should Web services get? "Are Web services tools aimed at developers, or is the analogy to HTML, where the tools got so easy, everybody can use them?" asks Rhody. Just that is a central line of argument. Everybody at the conference agreed that, for the most part, existing tool sets remain too complicated for most users and, the next wave of tools will bring dramatically improved usability. But how usable should tools get? For now, leave that as an open question because the one fact is that Web services' future is still being defined.

    And Finally...
    Add it up, however, and even with the debates - maybe even because there remain points of contention amid wide agreement about foundation points that enable Web services - nobody left the October conference thinking anything but upbeat thoughts. "This is simple technology, but it will change how business does business," says Benfield, and massive as his prediction is, conference attendees could only applaud his viewpoint that this is the IT solution customers have been waiting for.

    Now, don't you wish you had been at Web Services Edge West/XML Edge conference? But even nonattendees can take heart in the good news offered by Rhody: "Web services will continue to grow - it solves real problems, for real customers, cost effectively. This industry is now just beginning."

    Author Bio
    Robert McGarvey has covered the Web since 1994 for magazines ranging from Technology Review to Upside. He is the author of the best-selling book How To DotCom and a contributing writer for several SYS-CON publications, including Wireless Business & Technology and Web Services Journal. [email protected]

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