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Web services marchitecture wars get personal

Sun vs The Beast, Part 94.

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In a move timed to steal headlines from Microsoft's Professional Developer Conference, which is running concurrently in Los Angeles, Sun is hosting a 'Web Service Summit' to talk up its Sun ONE marchitecture in Santa Clara later today. Real news might be harder to find: Sun is expected to announce that it will bundle iPlanet developer licenses with Solaris, but this has been widely trailed. Beyond that, expect a wholehearted endorsement of standards such as UDDI, ebXML, XML-RPC and/or SOAP, and how they'll all knit together with Java.

Beyond that, it's hard to see anything that might cause developers to even think about jumping camps. Java houses are already finding their own routes to web services, and Microsoft developers are being eased out of doing RPC via COM, to doing RPC via .NET. And in each case, it's the same distributed processing problem that's being cracked, for possibly the fourth time, since DCE in the late eighties. Presented in the same nebulous fashion. (We've lost count, but certainly Microsoft has come up with at least nine different names for its preferred model of executing programs on a remote computer).

But, um... where are the web services?

Actually they're here, but right now they amount to little more than calendar or directory listings, so begging the question - and given distributed computing's inability to deliver on great architectural visions, it's a valid one - whether there'll be a web service architecture compelling enough to persuade to compel corner shops and conglomerates to expose their dealings to the horrors of TCP/IP. Of actually, you know, getting round to doing all their business online.

In a sense then the current web services spat between Microsoft and Java is all about defining an API for the future, where any product catalog is accessible to any consumer on any device anywhere. It sounds marvellous, and the very model of friction-free capitalism. But the model assumes that producers and traders want to expose such information in the first place, and many of them have very good reasons for not wanting to do so. And the web services model imagines a model of automated capitalism that's so far been unrealised, and in fact exists only in the minds of hyperventilating boosters such as fallen 'New Economy' guru George Gilder. Whether it can ever be realised is quite another thing. You can automate business processes, but dang it, you can't take the humans out of the equation: and transactions tend to be influenced by such impure factors as professional relationships and reputation and trust, which are horribly subjective. And many if not most transactions turn on such judgements.

So to risk stating the bleeding obvious, or the dying ridiculous, the winner isn't going to be the one cleanest API. Right now the two camps each have powerful constituencies: Microsoft has (for now at least) the majority of big-spending consumers seated in front of Windows PCs. But Sun's industry-wide Liberty Alliance initiative has hauled in major market makers and the controllers of the dominant platform of tomorrow, the handheld/smartphone/smartcard device. No one's sure what it'll be, but a deal that encompasses Nokia and Sprint shows some level of forward-thinking, we figure.

Microsoft probably has the more consistent and coherent architecture of the two. It really knows where it wants you to go (through its Hailstorm sign on, into its Hotmail account, up through the Microsoft mall, with the Beast collecting a tithe at each step). But that's not enough. By your friends ye shall be known, goes the saying, and right now Microsoft needs all the friends it can get, in the shape of signed-up partners. Now if it only it hadn't been so mean... ®

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