Web services unites tech giants ... somewhat

Companies that for the most part have agreed to disagree appear to be making an exception when it comes to Web services, an emerging computing model that seems to be changing its definition as fast as it gathers new support.

While they engaged in some of the usual corporate head-butting, representatives from Hewlett-Packard Co., Microsoft Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and IBM Corp. found time for moments of accord during a panel discussion at Partech International's Web Services Conference here Thursday. At the heart of their agreement was a set of technology standards that the rivals agree will be central to the next stage of Internet computing.

Still largely a concept, Web services describes a computing model in which information can be pulled together over the Internet from a variety of sources and assembled, on the fly, into services that are useful to businesses and consumers. In some cases the information being accessed is itself a kind of service, becoming a building-block component such as a shared online calendar that can be integrated into a larger service offering.

Dollar Rent-a-Car, for example, is working to employ the concept by designing a system that allows it to access insurance services and other applications over the Internet from third-party providers, thus streamlining the process of renting cars, according to Larry Zucker, the company's executive director of application development, who gave a keynote address here.

In order for the Web services model to work, however, different types of computers will need to communicate with each other over the Web regardless of their underlying software and hardware. Because of that, the industry's habit of building products and technologies using competing standards won't work -- something the major IT vendors appear to be realizing, observers here said.

"I think one thing that was clear is that there's not going to be a huge standards war," said Judith McGarry, a spokeswoman for venture capital firm Partech International Inc., which hosted the one-day event. "They are all desperate to make sure their technology is interoperable so that customers will buy into it."

While each one pitched its platform as the best foundation for Internet-based applications and services, the four vendors made it clear that the Web services idea won't work without the broad adoption of technologies including XML (extensible markup language), UDDI (universal description, discovery and integration ) and SOAP (simple object access protocol). So far, there has been little resistance.

"This is all just beginning to take shape," said Ben Brauer [cq], product marketing manager for the Web services division at Hewlett-Packard, who has worked on the development of UDDI. "We all believe that standards are evolving more quickly than standards in the past because there is so much industry backing."

But while the vendors appear to be in agreement on basic standards, there's room for trouble yet. For example, XML comes in a variety of different formats, or "schema," depending on what it's being used for, and there's room for divergence from many of the agreed-upon standards at a deeper technical level, analysts said.

"There are standards, but they are the generic standards," said Tim Clark, an analyst with Jupiter Media Metrix. The building-block standards used to create Web services can actually be very proprietary, he said, and it's also not clear yet how coding languages such as Microsoft's C# and Sun's Java will exist side by side.

Leading the Web services charge are Sun, with its SunOne initiative, Java platform and other technologies; Microsoft, with its .Net initiative and C# language; IBM with its WebSphere platform and a variety of middleware, and HP with its eSpeak Web services platform. While the vendors are racing toward broadly the same goal -- to create a platform on which businesses can build and deploy Web services -- most are promoting their own programming languages to build the services.

"Something I've heard is that the problem with standards is the 's,' " said David Brinker, chief information officer and senior vice president of information technology at CSE Insurance, a company working to build Web services for the insurance industry, emphasizing "standards" as a plural. "All these companies are using the same standards but have a different implementation."

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