In terms of a basic working definition for application developers, web services are loosely coupled components of software that interact with each other via standard interfaces such as XML, SOAP (simple object access protocol), and UDDI (universal description, discovery and ntegration). Although this may sound simple, this concept strikes at a core issue that makes enterprise computing difficult: prior to the emergence of web services, application integration was solely based around programming languages. If you wanted to integrate two applications, you had to make sure they shared a common programming environment. Web services seek to eliminate time and expense associated with integrating such applications.
Once you adopt that concept, all kinds of things become more practical to do. We are currently seeing a wave of application development environments for building applications that support web services. These tools will allow us to build applications that have built-in integration interfaces, rather than having to add some sort of integration layer after the application has been built.
All this is important because it gives us the technology foundation needed to fulfill all the promises made around B2B e-commerce. The truth is that just about all the business models put forward around this form of e-commerce ran far ahead of what the technology could support because every time you needed to integrate another application it took six months. With the advent of web services that task should be reduced to six weeks or less. That would mean that within a year you could have hundreds of partners connected to the same environment, a concept that Microsoft chief software architect Bill Gates referred to as "frictionless" e-commerce during his Comdex keynote speech in Las Vegas.
If you need to see the concept of web services in action you can take a look at what Microsoft is doing around its My Services offerings, formerly known as HailStorm, for consumers. And if you want to get a preview of how that works in a .Net environment, pay a visit to Youknowbest.com, a service that lets people apply one shopping basket across multiple e-commerce sites.
In the Java environment, the poster child for how to use web services is a company called Talaris, which coordinates various administrative services online for large corporations such as Cisco.
The good news is that core fundamental change has come. The bad news is that a lot of the technology around web services is a work in progress. But if your organisation plans on staying competitive during the next decade, you're already a day late coming up to speed. But being a day late does not mean you have to wind up being a dollar short.