A New Wave Nears: Microsoft's Web Services

Microsoft readies more sophisticated development tools for Web services.
Microsoft has grand plans for its more than 4 million loyal business-software developers, and they involve turning programmers fluent in Windows into architects of a new type of distributed software called Web services. Phase one of the plan gets under way this week, as Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates introduces a new suite of development tools, Visual Studio.Net, designed to let programmers build more sophisticated applications--and potentially be more productive in the process.

The promised benefits of Web services include the ability to access everything from a software component to a full-blown application as a service--possibly offered on a subscription basis--via the Web. Web services should also simplify the process of application and business-process integration. "For every dollar spent on an application, corporations spend an additional $7 on integration," says Tom Berquist, managing director of research at Goldman Sachs.

Microsoft isn't alone among technology vendors providing the tools and infrastructure needed to create this next generation of computing. BEA Systems, IBM, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, and others are on the same track. But Microsoft is off to a fast start, having already delivered underlying technology in its BizTalk and Exchange servers.

One exemplary project: Microsoft is turning its giant TerraServer database of topographic maps into a service addressable by any program that adheres to Web-services standards: XML for data integration; the Simple Object Access Protocol for messaging; the Web Services Description Language to describe a program's functions; and the Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration spec to locate components in directories. "You can say this has been a dream of computer science for many decades," Gates said recently. "The momentum is there to drive Web services to the same kind of central position that the graphics interface and HTML had across all the different systems in the past."

The risk for customers is that .Net programming is such a departure from Windows development that they won't be able to stay with the old methodologies for long, as Microsoft increasingly puts its R&D resources into the new environment. Microsoft will continue to support current technologies such as the Component Object Model for a few more years, says group manager Barry Goffe.

It's important that Microsoft seed the market with its new software as a .Net layer replaces the Windows APIs for development activity, lest customers use the transition to defect to other environments. "This is a platform shift, and those don't happen very often," says Greg DeMichillie, an analyst at research firm Directions on Microsoft. "The question isn't whether people will move from the Windows platform. It's what they'll move to--.Net or Java."

Two years ago, Sun looked as if it might shunt Microsoft aside with the power and speed of its Solaris servers and its dot-com following. Now, Sun's the one playing catch-up, as profit margins on servers evaporate in a down economy, and its map for supporting Web services appears unclear.

Visual Studio.Net introduces a common programming model among the 26 languages it supports, including the widely used Visual Basic. The suite extends graphical metaphors familiar to Windows programmers to the coding of Web applications. Microsoft says Visual Studio.Net will simplify development and enhance productivity by cutting the amount of code that developers actually write. It's a tantalizing prospect as IT managers feel pressure to shorten project schedules.

Peter Osbourne

Early-adopter Osbourne says he saved Dollar Rent A Car $100,000 by using Visual Studio.Net.
Dollar Rent A Car Systems Inc. saved $100,000 using an early release of Visual Studio.Net, says advanced-technology group manager Peter Osbourne. The Tulsa, Okla., company last summer turned on a wireless reservation system that lets customers check or change bookings using cell phones or PDAs. Osbourne figures the software cost Dollar less than $20,000 in developer time to build--far less than the six-figure quote he got from a contractor.

But it could be some time before Dollar uses Visual Studio.Net for critical apps such as connecting its reservation system to hotel and airline computers. The company's 60-person IT shop has reused .Net components only a few times, in particular to link its Web site and VMS reservation system, replacing code written in COM, Microsoft's old-style object model. Osbourne initially thought Microsoft's new architecture would speed E-business, but he's found that "people are just figuring out what Web services will do."

Microsoft has laid out a technology map for Web services better than most competitors, including Sun, observers say. "Microsoft's strength is that Web services are central to .Net," says Jean-Christophe Cimetiere, CEO of consulting firm TechMetrix. Sun, Cimetiere says, "hasn't delivered much in the way of real products."

But Microsoft hasn't swayed everyone. Kaj Pederson, CEO of Urbana Software Inc., an E-learning software developer in San Francisco, says Visual Studio.Net still lacks Java's reliability.

The IT department at Boise Cascade Corp., a Boise, Idaho, paper and lumber manufacturer, writes a wide range of workgroup apps with Microsoft's Visual Studio tools, but it's considering moving more development to Java, which runs Boise's E-business Web sites. Bob Egan, the company's VP of IT, worries that Microsoft's new tools might actually take more time to work with, because of the learning curve.

Starting this week, Microsoft customers will find out.

-- with Karyl Scott

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