Metcalfe's column: From the ether

In recent weeks I've been working on the question of what software-development platforms will be important in the post-PC Internet era.

During the PC era, platforms such as Unix, C, Intel, DOS, Macintosh, SQL, Windows and Microsoft Office emerged. We remember how long IBM stuck us with punched cards, so we now ask, in court and elsewhere: how much longer will monopoly power perpetuate outmoded PC platforms in the Internet era?

Now in the PC-Internet transition, we already have Ethernet, TCP/IP, e-mail and hypertext Web platforms. In contention are Sun's Java and the open-source movement's Linux platforms. But what others?

I previously have suggested Inktomi as a platform for Internet application development. And I have summarised Tim Berners-Lee's work on The Semantic Web. (See week, continuing the search for emerging platforms in The Semantic Web, let's look at Bowstreet Software, wisely located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Bowstreet begins, of course, with Extensible Markup Language (XML). The key idea of XML is meta data -- data about the meaning (semantics) of data. Whereas The Hypertext Web yields pages in HTML for humans to read, The Semantic Web yields pages in XML for software to read.

Bowstreet says future software will be organised around the calling of Web services described at run time by XML. The company calls its technology Web Services Architecture (WSA).

My questions are these: Where will a service's XML meta data be stored? Where will profile meta data describing the user of a service be stored? What standard services will turn up in winning platforms? And with all the calling of services through the Internet, and all the interpretation of XML meta data, how will Web service platforms perform in production?

Bowstreet has ready answers to my first two questions. WSA is based on XML and Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP). It already has deals with IBM, Microsoft and Novell to use LDAP-compliant directories to store XML meta data about Web services and profiles of users calling on those services.

Over dinner in Portsmouth, I asked the Bowstreet team to confide in me as to which directory service will win -- IBM, Microsoft or Novell? They laughed and said in unison that there will be no directory winner. WSA will use as many directories as developers want in any Web-service call.

Bowstreet is initially using WSA in an application development platform for Internet channel management (ICM). The company's Java software enables customers to combine ICM "features" in highly flexible applications -- applications that recompile at run time based on directory meta data about customers and services.

Proposing an answer to my third question, Bowstreet is putting out an ICM development platform for the Internet era. Beneath that, the company is putting out WSA and hopes you will adopt it the way you adopted Windows, so they can be our next Web billionaires.

Of course, The Semantic Web and Bowstreet's WSA gain flexibility by delaying programming decisions from design, to coding, to compile, to run time. As always, the problem with "late binding" is performance, which leads to my fourth question. Can directories be accessed, XML parsed and Web services invoked responsively given the Internet's large numbers?

Well, processor speeds and Internet access are getting faster. And there are techniques to minimise recompilations. Bowstreet's chief technology officer Andy Roberts said the company's technology automates programming better to make the performance-flexibility trade-off. So there's hope.

Maybe Bowstreet will be one of the platform winners in the Internet era's Semantic Web. While continuing to scan the spectrum, let's stay tuned at

Technology pundit Bob Metcalfe invented Ethernet in 1973 and founded 3Com in 1979. Send e-mail to or visit

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