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Look Past Products To Web Services' True Promise

Service-centric technology model ushers in efficiencies
Aside from their ability to serve as a catalyst for service-centric computing, Web services are poised to transform the way we buy and use shrink-wrapped applications. For example, computer users may no longer need to buy desktop software in retail locations. They'll merely download snippets of code that reference application modules. These modules may be installed locally or could just as easily reside on remote systems as services. The economic impact of this approach will be the gradual elimination of the retail-reseller link in the supply chain, which will result in greater profits for the creators of the applications and lower prices for consumers.

In service-centric computing, software-licensing models and software vendors also will be reshaped. Most software is licensed for a set number of machines, for an indefinite period--a model that has considerable implications for a software company's revenue stream. In this model, the release of a new iteration of a product creates demand, and the vendor's resulting revenue typically spikes, as do the associated marketing expenses. Over time, sales slow and revenue from this product drops. A service-centric model evens out these peaks and valleys, which leads to a more predictable revenue stream and greater visibility in sales forecasting.

From a user's perspective, the service-centric model allows software to be used as needed for a fixed period or on a pay-per-use basis. One positive outcome of this arrangement for IT managers is that users can receive updates that install themselves without the need for a technician to be sent to every desktop. Also, software delivered as a service doesn't require the elaborate anti-piracy systems found in current products, since services can be easily shut off if fraudulent use is suspected. This frees users to potentially utilize a software service on any machine at any time, creating true device independence.

The payoff for software manufacturers is that they can profit from more-predictable revenue streams, which are no longer so closely tied to upgrade cycles. The big advantages for users: reduced administration costs and automatic software upgrades.

The term Web services, as these examples illustrate, is a bit of a misnomer. There's nothing about Web services or service-centric computing that requires the use of a Web browser. In fact, each day the notion of the browser becomes more dated. The emergence of new Internet-attached devices such as set-top boxes, kiosks, and game consoles, combined with the decline in PC sales, underscores the fact that browser wars will become somewhat irrelevant in future generations of client technology. The impact for users is that they will be able to pick and choose how they access services from a variety of devices rather than being tethered to PCs.

While the previous examples represent point-to-point communications models, service-centric computing can be extended to encompass interrelated networks of services and resources. These peer-to-peer networks, where client computers communicate directly with one another, really comprise nothing more than groups of computers, each exposing one or more services. The truly democratizing effect of service-centric computing in this context is the fact that no central server is needed to control interactions among users. All individuals on the network can provide and consume resources as they see fit. Of course, the logical next step for this kind of technology is the creation of grid networks, where resources can be provided dynamically, reducing computing power and service provisioning to the commoditized level of power-generation and distribution systems.

However, the success and adoption rate of new technology ultimately depends on the value it provides to end users, and the bottom line for Web services is no different. Because Web services will enable fundamental changes in the way software is packaged, delivered, and consumed, it's key to have a solid road map to make sure the impact is positive.

With Web services, as with any software project, your chances of success hinge on basic but essential steps such as performing a thorough needs assessment, gaining a good understanding of the technology and the vendor landscape, and using a pilot program before undertaking large implementations. Once those fundamentals are covered, chances are that Web services will result in greater efficiencies for your business. And that's what will transform the technology from today's hype to tomorrow's reality.

David Homan is a principal analyst with Doculabs, a research and consulting firm. You can reach him at [email protected].