And so to war they go

Like it or not, one of the key ingredients of news is conflict. It's a distasteful truth that has stuck with me from 20 years ago at journalism school. It might not be a particularly uplifting starting point for writing copy, but a blood-spattered battleground sure gives a reporter an obvious beginning.

Like it or not, one of the key ingredients of news is conflict. It’s a distasteful truth that has stuck with me from 20 years ago at journalism school. It might not be a particularly uplifting starting point for writing copy, but a blood-spattered battleground sure gives a reporter an obvious beginning.

IT reporting is just the same as war reporting in this regard. Every minor skirmish will get beaten up into full-blown war, if there’s no bloodier conflict around. Fortunately for the IT press, there’s no shortage of combatants ready to give their all for the potential billions of dollars waiting to be won.

So we’ve had hardware wars (CISC v RISC; Intel v Motorola v Digital; 32-bit processors v 64-bit) and operating system wars (Windows v Mac OS v OS/2; open [Unix] v proprietary) and browser wars (Netscape v Internet Explorer) and handheld platform wars (Palm v Windows CE v Psion) and any number of others (word processors, spreadsheets, presentation tools, development platforms … )

Whether any or all of these actually qualifies as all-out war or whether it does anyone a service reporting in this fashion is beside the point; deadlines are deadlines and editors — a brutal breed — want to see blood on the ground to know they have a story to run with.

So it’s with great anticipation that I report the opening up of a major new battlefront on the IT map. This one is over web services and the main antagonists are Microsoft (surprise, surprise), Sun, IBM, Oracle and Hewlett-Packard. Another contender (and, after the shock knockout of the champ in the heavyweight title fight a week or so ago, let’s not rule anyone out) is web application server maker BEA Systems.

BEA, which is tiny compared with the other web services combatants, happens to be among them by virtue of a string of acquisitions. It has taken products like transaction monitors Tuxedo (bought from Novell) and Top End (bought from NCR), and an application server from WebLogic, to put itself in equal first place with IBM in the web application server market.

That’s a market worth about $US1.6 billion, according to consultancy Giga Information Group, and together IBM and BEA account for about half of it. But at stake in the web services war (okay, at this stage it’s little more than a heated exchange, with Sun’s Scott McNealy doing all the talking) is much, much more. Web services, after all, will be nothing less (and probably a whole lot more) than the future middleware market.

They are a big step up from the web application serving business which BEA is doing so well in. Microsoft has been the most creative at describing what they might be. At the unveiling of its version, .Net, last June, it showed simulations of users seamlessly accessing a range of services from a variety of providers via several different devices.

But even with the launch of Hailstorm last month, which Microsoft New Zealand head Geoff Lawrie said gave “some substance” to .Net, there’s little to grasp hold of. While Hailstorm will eventually consist of XML-based services like notifications, email, calendaring, contacts and an electronic wallet, they’re not here yet.

At this stage of the contest, the contenders are looking for supporters among developers and partners, who will create the services which will run on their web platforms. On the one hand is Sun and Java and on the other Microsoft’s C#.

Where the others (IBM, Oracle and HP) fit in is less obvious, although IBM is a loud Java and XML backer. Analysts give Sun and IBM a headstart on the others in providing the various parts of the puzzle.

Sun, certainly, can claim to have anticipated the web services development with its years-old “the network is the computer” slogan. IBM, for its part, claims to lead the middleware market, doing $US9.9 billion of business last year, compared with Oracle’s $US5.4b and Microsoft’s $US2.9b (IBM’s figures). But who would ever downplay Microsoft’s chances? If all else fails, it could buy the market. And what of Oracle’s Larry Ellison, less witty but just as lippy as McNealy? And let’s not rule out HP’s potential for reinventing itself. Then BEA, or not BEA …

Let the battle begin.

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

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