Putting a face on Web services

As Web services usher in new ways to build, deploy, and consume software, they will in turn demand new interfaces. The current method of accessing software from a big fat PC browser won't be entirely replaced any time soon, but as new devices interact with Web services, they will require more adaptable interfaces.

One company already facing up to this realization is CareTouch , a division of Kaiser Permanente Health Plan, which has built a Web service that helps its customers find the best price for medical needs not covered by Kaiser Permanente's insurance. The service is currently accessible only via PCs, but the company plans to make it available to a variety of devices in the future -- presenting new challenges, according to Dr. Prasuna Dornadula, CTO of CareTouch.

"That is a major change. We can't put the whole page onto a handheld," Dornadula says.

Aiming to answer needs such as this, a new crop of companies, including Altio Inc., Curl Corp., Fourbit Group Inc., Digital Harbor, and Droplet Inc., is emerging to create a front-end delivery mechanism for Web services.

Delivery to devices is problematic for these companies: Within a typical Web-browsing scenario, whenever the server receives a request for a page, it rebuilds that entire page in HTML, then sends it back to the site visitor.

This method is suitable for PCs but does not work as well for smaller devices, such as handhelds and cell phones, for two reasons. First, sending a whole Web page to smaller devices demands more bandwidth than such devices can handle and more information than users need. Second, displaying an entire Web page on a cell phone is highly impractical, if not impossible.

Rohit Agarwal, CEO of Digital Harbor, in Provo, Utah, agrees that the development and maturation of Web services will bring about a change in how content is delivered -- moving from transmission of entire Web pages to only the information that the visitor is after -- in order to offer universal access to live, real-time information.

"We're going to make applications disposable, just as browsers make content disposable," Agarwal says.

Digital Harbor has a product currently in beta and slated for commercial availability in January that enables users to build applications or Web services out of applications components.

Agarwal says that the intent is to make those applications accessible from a variety of devices.

"We're talking about doing more than Web browsing; we're talking about Web-based applications," Agarwal says.

Fourbit Group, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Internet and wireless infrastructure provider, also is building technology for Web-based applications that enhances browsing by incorporating features normally reserved for desktop applications, says Rick Sanderson, CEO and CTO of Fourbit.

Fourbit's Fablet software product separates the information needed from its presentation. As a result, servers are not forced to process requests directly into HTML pages.

"Servers simply send the raw information and Fablet takes care of the rest," Sanderson says.

Earlier this summer, Sun Microsystems Inc. announced that it inked a pact with Fourbit to build MicroFablet, software that allows developers to deploy applications across a range of client devices, including desktops, Palm devices, and Web phones, all without the need for separate Web sites for each different client device.

Altio is another startup addressing the presentation of XML-driven applications that will work with Web services standards. The United Kingdom-founded company, now setting up shop in Cambridge, Mass., sells a presentation server and graphical development environment aimed at sidestepping the barriers of browser-based applications.

The Altio platform is says to feed data in near real-time to Web clients, join the data in a client-side XML database, and render it identically across different platforms and devices. Being XML-based, the platform is an excellent mechanism for integrating SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol)-based Web services, Altio officials say.

"We can do data integration between applications and Web services at the client -- where the user wants to do it -- rather than on the server," says David Jewell, the company's CEO.

With local XML-message processing, the architecture avoids browser and JVM (Java virtual machine) compatibility issues, as business logic programming stays on the server.

"We've decoupled the XML data from the way it's presented. The server application doesn't need to know about a specific existing end-user, just that the data needs to be updated," explains Dave Levett, Altio's founder.

Welcoming such efforts to solve the interface problem, Kathy Quirk, an analyst at Boston-based consultancy Hurwitz Group, says that vendors need to add support for multiple devices at the programming level to foster the development of Web services.

"If you're trying to get your customers to move to a new wave of development, you don't want them to have to throw away what they already have," Quirk says. "For Web services to be accessible across any device, that has to be easier for the programmers than it currently is."

Martin LaMonica contributed to this report.

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