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Getting Ready for the Web Services Tipping Point

End-users, vendors, and press alike often ask the question, “So, when are we finally going to see widespread adoption of Web Services and SOAs?” The answer to this question is that Web Services are a great example of a distributed technology, and distributed technologies exhibit the network effect. The network effect states that the adoption rate of the network increases in proportion to its utility. In other words, as more resources are connected to the network, there is greater desire to connect additional systems to consume those resources, providing an increased motivation to add additional resources to the network.

In the beginning, the growth of any network is small, because only visionary parts of the organization are willing to utilize such new technology. But at some point, the growth of the network reaches a tipping point where the deployment and use of the technology explodes, to be abated only by the saturation of the technology on the network. Prior to the tipping point, any networked technology struggles to establish its value proposition, but after that tipping point, it becomes ubiquitous, and consumers of the technology rise in importance as purveyors of the technology compete for their business. Today, there are clear signs that Web Services are nearing their tipping point, and when that point passes, the world of distributed computing will never be the same.

The Web Services Tipping Point
It is clear that Web Services that depend on Service-Oriented Architectures (SOAs) exhibit this network effect, because the key value propositions of such Services improve as the number of Services on the network increase. However, it’s important to understand that Web Services that are nothing more than standards-based APIs, and are not part of an SOA, will never reach that critical mass — only Web Services within properly managed and secured SOAs can provide the loose coupling, reliability, and composability that are the critical enablers of the business drivers for the Web Services network effect. After all, Microsoft COM, Java RMI, and CORBA never reached the tipping point ZapThink is predicting for Web Services, in large part because such earlier distributed computing technologies were missing one or more of these critical technology enablers.

The three primary business drivers for SOA are greater business agility, increased IT asset reuse, and the reduction of complexity through the abstraction of heterogeneity. Clearly, an SOA is better able to achieve each of these business goals the more Services are available on the network. As a result, while SOA and Web Services growth might seem to be a struggle today, at some point, organizations will have implemented enough Services that they will become indispensable–and even ubiquitous.

So, when does this tipping point happen? In order for a company to experience rapid adoption and growth of the Services in their network, there must first be enough of the right Services put on the network. Once a few important Services are available to the corporate network, then individuals who might not necessarily be the leading technology implementers will see reason to utilize those Services and expose Services of their own, perpetuating the chain reaction of growth, leading to a critical mass of available Services.

In fact, it is quite possible for companies to have hundreds of Services on their network, even though they have internally developed only a small fraction of that number. The ease of new Service creation, and the fact that newly purchased software will expose Service interfaces as their primary means of interaction will result in hundreds or thousands of Services on the network. Users don’t care whether or not a Service was developed by their own IT departments — they just want useful Services that meet their requirements. Therefore, a key indication that a company has passed their Web Services tipping point is that the demand for Services as well as the supply also explodes.

Such an explosion in demand is a familiar occurrence. For example, Wi-Fi forced companies into the same sort of technology adoption mode. In the beginning, only a few thought-leading individuals in the organization took it upon themselves to introduce wireless access points on their network. Soon, the number of laptops and other Wi-Fi consumers began to grow, which in turn led to an increased demand for wireless access points, and at some point, the growth of Wi-Fi was unstoppable. Some companies planned for this growth of wireless, but many were caught unprepared for the network management and security headaches that resulted. Don’t let the widespread adoption of Web Services catch you equally unprepared.

After the Tipping Point
The fact that an increased supply of Web Services leads to an increased demand that perpetuates the network effect will be the essential indicator that the critical mass for Web Services has arrived, and that we’ve passed the tipping point. At that point, the focus of attention will shift from producing Web Services to consuming them. ZapThink predicts an explosion of interest in software that consumes Web Services, including desktop apps, next-generation portals, and a range of business process tools that both consume and provide Web Services to people who are looking to build agile composite applications. In fact, we predict that Web Services will enable significant business growth, both internal to enterprises and in the B2B context. These new opportunities include:

  • Competition among Web Services, as users require a choice among which Services they consume. More than one Service will provide essentially the same functionality, so Service providers will have to compete on feature sets, reliability, and value.
  • Paying to use Web Services can become a reality. B2B marketplaces for Web Services will rise, and within organizations, enterprises can establish chargeback infrastructures to distribute the cost of providing Services across the organization.
  • Business application vendors will be able to assume that users have adequate consumer applications (which will often be rich clients), and therefore, those business applications need not come with their own interfaces.
  • Today, Service contracts represent the capabilities of the Service provider, but it will become increasingly important to represent the capabilities of the Service consumer as well. It will likewise be important to abstract the user behind the Service consumer, just as Web Services abstract the systems behind the Service interface.
  • There may even be a rise in the use of peer-to-peer (P2P) Web Services, as desktop applications add the ability to provide Web Services as well as consume them. The security and reliability implications of P2P Web Services may be intractable, however, so this application of Web Services may never be prevalent.

The ZapThink Take
The adoption of SOA-based Web Services in the enterprise is a foregone conclusion. The business and technical benefits that SOAs offer companies are significant and the technological barriers to adoption are low. Services built the right way will expand beyond the purview of the people who built them. The question is not “if,” but “when.” SOAs and Web Services are approaching that tipping point, whether or not companies plan for it.

The changes to the marketplace that reaching the Web Services tipping point will create, however, go far beyond simply having more Web Services. ZapThink predicts new growth areas in Web Service consumers, Web Service marketplaces, managed Web Service networks, and Web Service discovery offerings that help users find the Services they need. In other words, Web Services up to this point in time are only the first act. The real excitement is yet to come.
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