There's a song by gravel-voiced crooner Tom Waits called Step Right Up, about a dodgy salesman flogging the world's greatest product for a dollar.
From dusting, mowing the lawn, delivering pizza, finding lost slippers to helping you quit smoking, this product can do it all.
Over the past few years, there have been a few technologies that, while unable to cure baldness, have made some pretty bald claims and caused many an IT manager to lose his hair.
Whether through lack of support, poor implementation or expense, customers have been burned before, none more so than those who imagined that internet-based operations were the fastest route to sipping dry Martinis on their own Caribbean island hideaway.
If there is a certain amount of scepticism about new web technologies, it is understandable. There has been a lot of hype about what the technology can and will be able to do in the future. Nothing new there then. However, it is heartening to see that, unlike some previous technological 'breakthroughs', everybody needs and wants web services to succeed.
Since it seems likely that web services are going to be really big business, the channel should be preparing now for the commercial opportunities.
As far as researchers Gartner and IDC are concerned, web services, a loose term that refers to seamless application-to-application interoperability over the internet, are the next hot ticket. Just look at the way Microsoft and others are realigning everything they have around web services technology.
Gartner estimates that the market could be worth as much as $30bn by 2005. IDC reckons that support for web services standards, such as Simple Object Access Protocol (Soap) and Web Services Description Language (WSDL), will be a must-have feature of application server software platforms (ASSPs) by the end of this year.
The research firm claims that it will become virtually impossible to sell an ASSP product that does not have at least basic support. Web service support is also expected to help boost slack software sales in this arena, as well as in others.
So what are web services? Here is a quick overview. In business speak, a web service is a piece of software that represents a business service or function - an online train timetable or a parcel tracking service, for example - that can be accessed over the internet by another application, regardless of platform.
Web services consist of certain XML-based standards that allow applications to talk to each other over an IP backbone. Because they are platform independent, two businesses do not have to know what kind of software applications the other uses to provide limited access to those applications.
Certain middleware technologies have tried to bridge the gap between applications running on different platforms before, but none have put forward a potentially simpler and more universally accepted methodology for doing it.
Web services can be broken down into a number of technologies and standards that each handle a single task. XML is the language for labelling the data, so that everyone knows what it is. Soap handles data transfer, WSDL is used for describing available services, and Universal Description, Discovery and Integration lists the available services.
The idea behind web services is to take the pain out of application integration, allowing companies to open up access to their applications to trusted partners and customers.
For instance, to track packages sent with FedEx, companies have had to go to the FedEx website and run a search. Since FedEx and certain third parties set up a tracking service, customers can easily integrate the tracking service into their own website or applications. It is a simple service that saves time and makes doing business with FedEx easier.
A less complex and quicker way of doing business internally, as well as externally with partners and customers, is exactly what most businesses find interesting in the web services proposition. To date, though, they have had to wade through a lot of hype first.
"People are getting too carried away," said Ian Hendry, director of European operations at application security specialist Entegrity Solutions. "We need to see some of the constituent technologies and standards ratified and proved through use in commercial organisations.
"There is no doubt that web services are needed, but right now there's a lot of vendor and channel confusion, never mind customer confusion. The whole lot is a mish-mash of vapourware and specifications that are still in draft."
Kevin Malone, software technical strategist at IBM, agreed. "There has been a lot of hype about web services, including claims that any service over the web is a web service," he explained.
"But, while it has been over-hyped, it is also true that it has been underestimated. The simplicity of the standards make it so easy for small businesses to become part of the supply chain of a large business, without the cost overheads. Application integration has traditionally been expensive for small companies."
Rob Hailstone, software infrastructure research director at analyst IDC, added: "With any new technology, the hype goes into overdrive and then hibernates. It goes underground for a time while vendors implement the technology in products, and get pilots up and running. This is where web services are now."
There are already a growing number of simple web services coming on stream, allowing companies to open up certain aspects of internal applications to employees, customers and partners. But the vast majority of projects are in the pilot stage and are based on the intranet model.
This is a wise move, according to many, since it would be easy to forget that we are still dealing with a technology in its infancy, both in terms of products and standards.
"Web services technology is nothing without the parts that make it up, and most of those are at the embryonic stage," said Hendry. "We have first-generation web services where security is very limited. HTTP is not enormously reliable as a transport mechanism.
"It is very important that the standards are sorted out quickly. Undoubtedly there will be a phased approach to web services, mainly in the intranet, and that is the best place for it until standards are more mature."
Hailstone added: "We are seeing deployment in large organisations looking at the short-payback/low-risk scenario. It's like adoption by subterfuge. Few will base the whole business on web services.
"The majority are in the tactical deployment stage, and using them in an intranet is the safest place for now. Used cautiously, web services can also be very effective in linking with trusted partners."
Phil Cross, developer marketing manager at Microsoft, said: "Businesses should be looking at doing pilots first. We don't recommend that companies switch over entirely to web services technology. Companies have a lot of internal problems that need solving before attempting to use web services outside the firewall."
Entegrity Solutions (01344) 782 950
IBM (02392) 561 000
IDC (020) 8987 7100
Ideal Hardware (020) 8286 5000
Microsoft (0870) 601 0100
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