That change is the continuing evolution of J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition)-based application servers from vendors such as BEA, Sun, IBM and Hewlett-Packard. Not long ago, most application vendors considered these application servers not robust enough and too proprietary for building a suite of applications. As a result, every major software provider built its own application servers.
Today, however, most J2EE app servers have matured to the point where they are not only built on top of industry standards, but are robust enough to support the demands of just about any given set of enterprise applications. And to prove the point, many of the providers of application servers are now bundling enterprise application functionality into their application servers as optional modules.
It will be a while longer before application servers seriously threaten the entrenched providers of enterprise applications, but the writing is on the wall. We have already seen vendors in the content management arena stop referring to their wares as platforms. The only reason they were platforms is that they had their own application servers. But those proprietary implementations are now being usurped by industry-standard J2EE platforms that leverage web services technologies such as SOAP (simple object access protocol), XML and UDDI (universal description, discovery and integration).
This means items such as corporate portals, content management systems and other pieces of enterprise software are once again being referred to as applications. And as part of that shift, we have seen a wave of air-kiss alliances between the providers of applications and app servers as they pledge their undying mutual affection and perpetual love for one another.
The reality, however, is quite different. In their never-ending quest to compete with one another, application server vendors are offering a wider variety of application modules to differentiate themselves in this space. Unless you need a state-of-the-art content management system or corporate portal, the odds are good that the extensions being offered by application server companies will do nicely.
The end result of all this is that a lot of providers of enterprise software are not going to make it. Many will be acquired or subsumed by application server vendors, or in Microsoft's case, by the provider of the OS. The first example of this was IBM's recent acquisition of Crossworlds, which marketed EAI (enterprise application integration) software that will now be used to integrate the disparate pieces of software that make up WebSphere and its itinerant parts.
So a word to the wise: watch and wait before you decide to make your next million-dollar software investment. Chances are the people you're betting on won't be there to back it up this time next year.