Get weady to be wooed by web services

As combatants in the web services war amass their weapons, winning the hearts and minds of application developers looks to be the key to eventual victory.

As combatants in the web services war amass their weapons, winning the hearts and minds of application developers looks to be the key to eventual victory.

This isn’t a battle which consumers will be aware of since the whole point of web services is that they’ll be transparent to users; service providers will cobble together applications built on a variety of technology platforms, offering them as a seamless whole. Microsoft, Sun, IBM, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard and others are in a race to make theirs the technology platform of choice.

If that means being wooed with free training and having powerful new tools thrust into your hands, you’re probably not likely to complain. But inevitably it will also mean having to make difficult choices amid confusing claims and counterclaims from those vying for web services supremacy.

Microsoft would seem to have the inside running a year after first telling the world about its .Net web services strategy. It has a coherent — if incomplete — web services roadmap and is well down the path of generating developer interest. According to Microsoft New Zealand, 300 local application developers have attended .Net training.

Last week, an important milestone passed with the release of the second beta of Microsoft’s Visual Studio.Net. This is the set of tools Microsoft wants developers to drop all else for to design and create applications that support web services.

Visual Studio.Net is not yet a shipping product so a gaping hole remains in the Microsoft plan. But the company claims the toolkit is now feature-complete and, between now and its commercial release at the end of the year, it’s just a matter of eradicating the bugs. Sounds easy. The chief advance of the second beta, so the company’s New Zealand .Net solutions specialist says, is that it allows those who’ve been tinkering with .Net development to press their applications into service. By the time Visual Studio.Net is for sale, Microsoft New Zealand wants 10 local web services (of the kind described in Paul Brislen’s Dial Tone column) launched with it.

That’s Microsoft’s developer pitch. Oracle counters its Redmond rival in a section of its website entitled “Tough questions to ask Microsoft”. It proceeds to do a comprehensive debunking of the .Net story.

Oracle’s first line of attack is to question how readily existing Visual Basic applications will be converted to Visual Basic.Net, part of the .Net toolkit. According to Oracle, Visual Basic is being rewritten from the ground up to correct original flaws that make it incompatible with internet or web services development. It claims Microsoft developers familiar with the changes have written articles in MSDN magazine with quotes like “Porting any project from Visual Basic 6.0 to Visual Basic.Net will be a nontrivial undertaking”.

Oracle gets some support from US analyst Martin Marshall, head of Zona Research in California. Marshall expects the biggest web services issue to be the translation of current developer skills to forthcoming products and, in particular, “whether Visual Basic is compatible with Visual Basic.Net, not whether web services from different vendors are compatible with each other”.

As usual, analysts are more circumspect about the spread of web services than the vendors who see them as their next cash cow. At the start of the year, Gartner predicted that all leading e-business platforms would support at least basic web services infrastructure by 2002 or by 2003; by 2003, more than 75% of web services in production would be supported by web services infrastructures provided by IBM, Microsoft or two or three other vendors.

So what overtures are IBM, Sun and HP making toward the development community? None of these have put together as comprehensive a pitch as Microsoft or Oracle. While Oracle debunks Visual Basic.Net, it promotes Oracle JDeveloper as a web services development platform.

IBM’s bid hinges on its Web Services Toolkit, which allows developers to create web services wrappers for Java classes, servlets and Enterprise JavaBeans, and automates creation of WSDL (web service description language) files.

Sun’s platform, called ONE (open network environment), will support the de facto web services standards XML, SOAP (simple object access protocol), UDDI (universal description, discovery and integration) and WSDL (web services description language), and includes Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE), Enterprise for JavaBeans and Forte for Java Tools.

The least well-known scheme is HP’s. It has formed a middleware deal with Irish company Iona, apparently providing it with a necessary web services component. But the details of its pitch are obscure.

In a nutshell, it all seems to come down to Microsoft’s Visual Studio.Net versus Java. And if fighting through the details of each of the big five’s strategies isn’t enough, there’s a whole host of third-party vendors readying products to fill any gaps. If the confusion becomes too much, you might want to start a new career. For anyone thinking of journalism, let me assure, you the confusion’s even greater.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send email to Anthony Doesburg. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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