Web Service Availability
Over the last few years, I participated in several projects that helped me sharpen my vision of what Web services should look like in the future. Here's the vision: the transparent Web services economy.
The Internet and Transparent Markets
One of the fundamental laws of a capitalist economy is that a transparent marketone where every player has access to all product and pricing informationis the ideal market. The transparent market will, over time, converge towards the best pricing for the best products with the best level of services.
That's the economic theory, at least. In practice, it is very difficult to create transparent markets. The stock market and, possibly, eBay are the best approximations we know of. Yet the theory is useful in guiding our actions. For example, the antitrust laws are derived directly from this theory.
When it comes to the Internet, you can read this law in many interesting waysparticularly if you are a proponent of open software and open standards. This section applies these principles to Web services. Web services are a fertile soil for the development of a transparent market and ultimately more e-commerce solutions.
Technically speaking, Web services are based on open standards (HTML, HTTP, SMTP). Open standards enable anybody, no matter what computer he or she uses, to join and participate in the online economy.
Conversely, other forms of e-commerce have not achieved widespread adoption because they failed to build a transparent market. EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) is a prime example: It is a good idea and one that works. However, it never captured a significant market share because it is a relatively closed club with such high membership dues that few businesses can afford to join.
For Small Business, Too
The involvement of all businesses, no matter how big or small, is crucial to the development of a transparent market. Small businesses, although they seldom make the front page of magazines, are the bread and butter of the U.S. and European economies. They provide the dynamism that the market needs as they develop new products, challenge established players and strive to grow or, more simply, are content to exploit a useful niche.
However, for small businesses to participate in any market, the price must be right; small businesses have small means. Fortunately, on the Internet, the price is right. Internet access is so cheap no business can afford not to have it.
Furthermore, Web sites rent for low monthly fees and good editors can turn anybody into a passable Webmaster. Even building a fully-fledged online shop is cheap: Most ISPs offer shopping carts at reasonable rates. And for those who prefer to join an established mall, there's Amazon's zShops and similar offerings from Yahoo! and Lycos.
The Transparent Web Service Economy
Yet, so far, the Internet is geared towards B2C e-commerce, as opposed to B2B e-commerce. This is mostly because the standards it supports are geared toward end users. A Web site is intended for human consumption. It works well with a consumer that does his own shopping manually. It does not work so well with B2B e-commerce because a Web site can't interface with ERP packages and the other software used within the organization.
What is required to build a successful business market online? Again, the most successful market is a transparent market. Experience has shown that the technical equivalent of a transparent market is open standards. On the Internet, for B2B e-commerce, open standards mean XML and Web services.
This leads me to what I call the Web service economy, which is simply a B2B online market. To be successful, such a market must be transparent or, technically, built on XML and other Web standards. In the Web service economy, any businesssmall/big, Windows/Macintosh/Linux/PalmOS/AS400can participate at a reasonable cost.
We're not there yet. The closest things today are XML marketplaces such as Ariba or mySAP. However, they are closed technically and expensive to join. With the advent of Web service standards and their availability in software development tools, you should expect that, in the next 2-4 years, closed solutions will gradually be replaced by Web services.
The same transformation happened in the consumer arena. Until 1996-1997, if you had asked any Web designer to build an online shop, he or she would have turned to his or her programmer's editor and written one for you. Few businesses could afford it. In 1997, the same person could have sold you a packaged product. Not a custom-made shop, but a standard product that lacked few features when compared to Amazon.com. It was not exactly cheap, yet (most of those products cost between $3,500 and $10,000), but it was already cheaper than a custom-built solution. Furthermore, the products were more powerful and better tested than custom-built solutions.
Today most ISPs offer shopping carts for $50-$200 per month. HTML editors, such as NetObjects, enable you to edit and manage your shop from your desktop. Many proprietary solutions, such as ActiveX, have come and gone. The winners have succeeded because they were built on transparent solutions.