Not fade away

On Wall Street, the canary in the mine shaft for a turnaround is capitulation. It's the tipping point between despair and salvation, when enough people believe the worst is yet to come to fuel the upturn they've given up on.

Fundamental to capitulation is the leading negative indicator. Lee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal is one of my favorites in the technology sector. "It's starting to look as if the end may be near for the 'peer-to-peer' fad," Gomes pronounced in April 2001. The influential journalist's comments sent many p-to-p players scampering to the hills, downplaying the peer elements of their strategies.

Now, in a recent column, Gomes has his eye on Web services, which he defines as "when companies use the Internet to do business with each other." And then out comes the hammer: "But that was the great promise of the b-to-b fad of three years ago, and Web services seem like just a reheated helping of the same dish."

Sure enough, everybody is stepping up to the plate. Typical is Intel CTO Pat Gelsinger, who told me that we may look up a few years from now and realize that the dynamic discovery vision of Web services was just a fantasy. As John Patrick reported, "Pat put forth the idea that Web services is fundamentally flawed because it optimizes to the network as opposed to direct computing resources, e.g., microprocessors."

The only thing better would be for Bill Gates himself to sit down in a one-to-one interview and soulfully admit, "I'm superashamed to say it, but Web services just didn't pan out the way I thought it would." But that won't happen -- just ask Marc Lucovsky, if you can find him.

Ironically, Lucovsky's Hailstorm technology was the inspiration for Groove Network Inc.'s forthcoming edge services initiative (now called Groove Web services). "I hadn't really heard of SOAP yet," Groove's John Burkhardt recalls. "Then we heard about Hailstorm and Web services. They've got these messaging services -- MyNotifications, MyMessages -- and isn't the [Groove] relay server sort of a message storing service, and couldn't it be a MyRelay? A Hailstorm MyMessageQueue server."

Two years later, Hailstorm is gone, absorbed into the .Net Framework and servers. But Groove is being transformed by edge services. "[Microsoft Corp.] is trying to figure out how to build massively scalable applications that they're going to run on these megaservers that can handle millions of clients hammering on this thing," Burkhardt says. With Groove, he says, "now you have your own little, personal SOAP server."

Meanwhile, a few weeks ago at the Gartner conference, I was treated to a demo of Microsoft's XDocs, a dynamic forms generator that sits atop an XML Web services platform. The product, slated for release in mid-2003, is billed as an Office family member, yet it can operate with or without Office and/or .Net.

It's hard not to drop into market-speak about XDocs. How's this: XDocs forms are easy to develop and easier to use. Sorry, but it's true. Domino designer developers are already familiar with its dynamic rows, scriptable visibility, date pickers, rich text fields, and validation tools. You can wire up all types of data inputs: embedded lookup tables, external databases, and -- that's right, ma, I'm only bleeding -- Web services.

Suddenly, a tipping point looms. Here's a front end to any and all back ends, so you can hook XDocs up to SAP, Siebel, BizTalk Server, Domino -- any source that exports an XML schema. In design mode, you point at a Web service and the WSDL returns its methods and schema. Mapping it to the form UI is a drag-and-drop process.

Then there's the integration with SharePoint Team Services. Saving an XDoc form template to SharePoint launches a built-in deployment wizard. XDocs uses property promotion to select the appropriate XML to display, rolling up multiple forms into an interactive Web page with visual formatting, validation, repeating records, and aggregation functions such as auto-summing.

So let's recap. We have two companies lost in the twin towers of peer and Web services. Groove has survived the peer-to-peer fad only by the magnetism of its visionary founder, Ray Ozzie, and by the sheer luck that IBM has left the door open for Groove in the collaboration space due to confused messaging around its Notes/WebSphere transition.

Microsoft has received poor notices for its parallel Exchange migration, offering lots of marketing but little substance in its collaboration offerings like SharePoint. Office 11 finally delivers XML as a core part of Word, Excel, and Access, but Outlook remains marooned in an aging and Web services-free document model.

But wait, despairing users. Out of the jaws of defeat, victory is snatched. "We're talking about smart-client apps reaching into and using Groove's services: storage, synchronization, collaboration." It's Groove co-founder Jack Ozzie with the call: "Microsoft targeted the information worker -- basic workflow, routing. Anyone can design a form, throw a little script on it, e-mail it, send it via Groove."

Let's drag and drop the auto-summing control on this: Take the XML object routing, secure peer and presence services, and cross-firewall functionality of Groove, and slap the XDocs front end on it. Use Web services to connect processes internally and externally across shared spaces and application boundaries via a business analyst (and Lotus business partner) friendly development environment.

The result: a blend of p-to-p and Notes built on top of Office by a coalition of IT and business logic developers. Not bad for two fads that are fading away. Sell!

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