Web services: Road to IT renaissance

Recently I've been discussing why the enterprise computing solutions investment cycle was coming to an end, to be displaced by Web services. Unfortunately, a technical description of how Web services function doesn’t explain why we’ve entered a new evolutionary stage in how computing will affect organisations.

The idea that computing has evolved over several cyclical stages is now accepted wisdom. Various authors have discerned a succession of three-, four- or even eight-stage cycles since 1950, depending on how they sliced up the written record. Whenever the computer industry experiences one of its periodic slumps (about every six to eight years) the gurus, investors and entrepreneurs engage in a guessing game of what will be the next cycle to spawn yet another bonanza.

Almost everyone agrees that technological innovation is needed to bring about the next growth cycle. There is also a consensus that the next wave will have something to do with Web services. However, just tagging Web services as the engine to create another round of trillion-dollar investment is a dead end. For the next cycle to happen, CEOs and CFOs will demand demonstrable gains in added value.

In this environment, anything tagged as a technological improvement won’t sell in the boardrooms. Therefore, market planners and consultants are repackaging Web services as “customer-centric computing”, “human-centred computing”, “ubiquitous computing” and so forth. This emerging list of hyphenated labels suggests that the control over IT will migrate closer to the customer. Such reshuffling will be enormously expensive because it will require junking much of what’s in place right now.

The real story is that the next wave of IT investments will shift much of the control over IT from the producers of IT (vendors, CIOs, consultants) to those who can decide what information is worth getting in order to do their jobs more effectively. When I talk about Web services, I really mean a practical demand for CIOs to restructure technology to ease the traumatic shifts from supply-side economics to demand-side economics.

I’m sure that there will be many debates about whether such a transformation will actually happen, and if so, how rapidly. Before making predictions, it’s useful to examine how employees will acquire the capabilities to decide what information to obtain and how much to pay for it, and those are tough questions.

Moving decision-making about the uses of IT calls for a radical cultural change. Right now, with the exception of what they fix up on their PCs, employees are largely force-fed from a menu that has been cooked by a few decision-makers, mostly technologists. The current organisation of IT is like a 13th century European town, where the local guilds and the bishop decide what people may wear and discuss. Introducing a K-Mart of choices into such a setting is likely to upset those who hold power.

But Web services must be seen not just as a technologically advanced method for managing and distributing information. Internets and intranets must also be understood as an instant marketplace where individuals can exercise a wide range of choices about what information to acquire and how to take advantage of an enormous variety of information-processing capabilities.

If the exercise of individual choices is the key to the empowerment of a vastly more productive information workforce, we must set out now to lay the foundation for a software architecture that will make that feasible. After an examination of what is actionable now, I have concluded that vendor-independent portal technology will be one of the principal means of making Web services valuable. CIOs should go back to their architectures and remove vendor-specific ways in which people are forced to interface with applications.

In their place, CIOs should promote the adoption of generic and universal portals that can be adapted to employees’ scope of work, skills, literacy and habits.

I see infinite opportunities for the expansion of Web services if people are offered the opportunity to shape their portals as a friendly companion for trips into the world of networked knowledge.

Paul Strassmann equates the access to knowledge with the progress of society.

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