Technology: Putting Web Services to Work

Everyone agrees that the term “Web services” refers to a new set of flexible application building blocks that let companies exchange data easily between dissimilar systems. But that’s where the agreement ends; the rest appears to be a mass of confusion. Sometimes the technology is said to be as simple as basic browser-based services—a single request by a PC in New York City for a currency conversion from a server in Geneva, for instance. Sometimes it’s described as sophisticated communications links between Web servers and host computers that let incompatible systems talk to one another as if they were virtual twins. Meanwhile, vendors, looking to jump on what they perceive as a bandwagon rapidly gaining speed, claim that anything they do that uses XML is Web services.

And the confusion extends beyond the complications of the technology itself. How best should CIOs determine the business value of Web services when they are so hard-pressed to figure out how exactly to go about using the technology?

Says John Hagel, a former McKinsey & Co. principal who coauthored a forthcoming book on the business value of Web services: “I think there’s confusion at three levels. First, a lot of people, when you say, ‘Web services,’ just think Web sites.” Then there’s the changing nature of the technologies themselves. Confusion at “the second level is understandable, given that standards are still in the process of definition,” he notes. As for the third level, “users say, ‘Okay, I think I understand the technology. Now tell me as a business person why I should be interested in this stuff. What are we talking about today, versus a year from now, versus five years from now?'”

Says Bob Sutor, IBM Corp.’s director for e-business standards strategy and the man most responsible for the technology giant’s multivendor efforts with Web services: “It’s confusing because there’s been a little bit of marketing hype, as opposed to speaking to Web services’ business value,” he said. “We have a tremendous amount of education to do.”

To that end, rather than offering up yet another explanation of what Web services is, we went at the problem by talking to several corporate CIOs who have already taken the plunge.

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