The World Wide Web didn’t make Windows obsolete and Microsoft won the browser wars-just in time for the next battle, the war over Web services.
Web services are a way of moving between applications on the Internet as easily as moving between Web pages today-and there’s already a rival in this space.
Sun Microsystems’ Java technology (specifically Java 2 Enterprise Edition), combined with emerging XML standards, makes it easy for Java applications on one platform to interact with Java applications on any other platform.
LabMorgan CTO Ameet Patel calls Web services one of the coolest new technologies. “It allows you to do transactional applications over the Internet,” he said. “I call it the real-time Internet. We are looking not only on using the technology but also on investment opportunities.”
In effect, with Web services, the entire Internet becomes one giant computer, said Dan Kusnetzky, VP of systems software research at International Data Corp.
The question is: Who will write the operating system for this computer? One possible contender is Microsoft, with its .Net platform, a kind of Internet-wide successor to Windows.
Like Java, .Net uses open standards for basic communications between applications-but higher-level .Net standards are proprietary to Microsoft.
According to Kusnetzky, some standards-XML-based systems for exchanging information about where applications can be found, what the applications do, and how the applications want to see their data-have already been developed by standards-setting bodies. Other standards-for ensuring security or keeping track of on-going conversations between applications, instead of just individual contacts-are currently in development.
As a result, Kusnetzky said, if Microsoft leverages its dominance of the desktop market, Microsoft could force companies to use its own, proprietary standards-and lock Java out of the game.
“If the customer base is large enough, it can direct the standards body,” he said. “Standards bodies typically don’t operate as fast as a vendor can.”
That’s not true, according to Matthew Conners, securities industry manager at Microsoft Corp. Microsoft is strongly committed to standards, he said, and is, in fact, a leader in working with standards organizations. .Net applications, he added, can already interact with those written on other platforms.
“With the magic of XML and Soap [simple object access protocol, which lets applications communicate across the Internet], you can re-use code regardless of what machine it’s on and what language it was written in,” Conners said.
“Microsoft is saying we’re open, we’re open, we’re committed to standards, then they go on to the next thing,” argued Randy Heffner, director of application infrastructure at Giga Information Group. “If you want security with your Web services, then you need to implement our Hailstorm services, such as Passport. What Microsoft is trying to do is say they’re open, but tie people to a proprietary security architecture with Hailstorm and Passport. This is where there is some more standardization that needs to happen. It’s no good for Microsoft to say they’re open at the bottom level if they’re not open at the higher levels.”
Microsoft is also behind Java when it comes to actual implementations of the technology, Heffner said, though Microsoft is trying to catch up. In addition, true Web services are still a year, year and a half away for both, according to Heffner. But Java applications are running everywhere on the Internet, in financial services, e-commerce sites, and elsewhere.
There are few examples of .Net installations-mostly because few .Net products have been released. One example of a project that is running is one by global investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, which included applications running on Unix machines. Dresdner used a piece of .Net technology to enable employees to work from any location-offices, off-sites, hotel rooms, or their homes.
“This required providing Web-based access to a variety of the bank’s core operational and transaction systems, which were developed long before the broad commercial use of the Internet was ever conceived,” said Simon Johnson, vice president of information technology at DrKW and one of the project’s chief architects.
Every employee can now access their usual corporate applications with only a Web browser and an Internet connection. Once logged in, users see their normal desktop, containing a variety of applications-including enterprise applications, such as SAP R/3, desktop productivity tools such as Microsoft Office and the Microsoft Outlook messaging and collaboration client, and many specialized financial markets applications for trading, portfolio management, clearing and settlement. When a user clicks on an application, it opens within the browser window, providing the same level of access and functionality as if the user were in the office. Traditional green screen host-based applications operate no differently, simply appearing within the browser window when selected by the user.
“Although we can never go to a single platform, and some legacy systems will always be with us, I believe strongly in the development principles of the Microsoft .Net platform and anticipate its use widely throughout our organization,” said DrKW CIO J.P. Rangaswami.
While Dresdner created Web services for use within the firm, other companies can create Web services for public use, Conners said. “The potential scenarios are just phenomenal.”
However, according to Jan Vitek, professor of computer sciences at Purdue University, Microsoft is pushing the envelope to only a limited degree.
“In many respects, the .Net technology could be described as just catching up to Java or reinventing Java since they [Microsoft] have lost their right to use it,” he said, referring to the outcome of a recent lawsuit. “It’s not a breakthrough.”
The only advantage that .Net has over Java, he said, is its support for multiple languages.
“This is a significant plus because people will be able to use many languages to write the programs that will all run on top of the .Net platform,” he said.
These languages include old stand-bys such as COBOL, Fortran and C++ — as well as Java and Microsoft’s new Java-like language, C#. However, only an older version of Java will be supported by .Net because of the above-mentioned lawsuit, said William Hartnett, head of the enterprise group at Microsoft. “We’re prevented from doing a lot of things with Java that we may like to. The version of Java we support now is not going to be advanced, so at some point developing in that version of Java won’t have the newer features.”
In addition, Java — and any other language — that is compiled under .Net will only run on the Windows platform, though there are plans to make .Net able to run on other platforms in the future, Hartnett said, though Windows will remain a priority.
Microsoft is using a couple of tactics to combat the spread of Java–the language will not be supported by the newest Windows release, Windows XP, due out this fall, and will redefine Java applets as “high security”–which will make it more difficult to use them across corporate firewalls.
“I’d be shocked if it wasn’t tied to Microsoft’s .Net rollout,” said Andrew Shikiar, director of Possie, an Atlanta-based group of Java developers.
The financial services industry will be hurt the most by this, he added. “Online brokerages-that’s a ton of Java there,” he said. “Stock tickers, charts, interactive research, online trading.”
But financial technology vendors say that the heightened security restrictions on Java won’t be a significant issue because most Java applications run on the server, not the desktop.
“I really don’t see it as an issue,” said Stefan Van Overtveldt, director of technology marketing for IBM WebSphere, one of the Java-based alternative platforms to .Net. “Our computing model is based on running browser-based client. If you do that . . . the only thing you’re sending out is the presentation data.”