However, Bola Rotibi, an analyst at Ovum, says that while Web services will change the way software is built, integrated and re-used, it will be some time before we see the open interchange of application data that has been promised.
"Web services will be adopted and applied in stages," says Rotibi. "Organisations will concentrate on getting to grips with Web services technology and apply it to simple internal application development. It will be some time and require a more robust framework before users are prepared to use Web services for integration with external applications in the way that suppliers are hyping about."
But Rotibi fears that Web services may go the way of previous attempts to create open standards before this can happen. The fragmentation of standards poses a threat to suppliers' long-term visions, she says.
"The standards landscape is littered with specifications that have too many overlapping functions, says Rotibi. "Web services are in danger of becoming fragmented before they are given a real chance to work. If we are not careful they will become just another distributed architecture. There needs to be a drive within the industry to ensure that various standards bodies are more aware of one another's specifications to avoid duplication.
Suppliers must work together to grow the market, says Rotibi, and online marketplaces and trusted service providers will also have a major role to play.
Rotibi offered the following brief rundown on what the major suppliers are doing in the Web services space:
n Among the major players, IBM has a clear understanding of the complexities surrounding the Web services framework and there can be no doubt about its desire to strengthen the Web services infrastructure. It wants to push forward its reputation as an infrastructure heavy weight and create opportunities to better integrate its own products.
IBM has already created Web services interfaces for its MQ Series messaging product and its relational database system DB2 - important infrastructure components of its portfolio. The company is prolific in its output of specifications and recommendations, in keeping with its pivotal role in defining the technology. Its recent exclusion from the W3C Technical Architecture Group, while surprising, may alleviate the fears of those concerned at the company's large presence and dominance in the technology.
n Sun was late adopting the Web services mantra but has made up lost time with its Sun Open Network Environment (Sun One) initiative. This aims to unify the company's infrastructure and development products into a Web services based e-business platform. The recent admission of iPlanet into the main Sun body, and the company's Web service and the Sun One initiative give the company some major software assets. However, Sun still needs to do more to lend credence to any claim to be a major player competing with the likes of IBM.
n Microsoft has made Web services the core of its .net strategy. It has marketed Web services and .net so closely that it caused early confusion as to the openness of the technology. It is a mix of concepts - a software infrastructure framework, a tools strategy, online services strategy and a brand architecture - .net is as much about Microsoft's desire to combine the commercial online services market with corporate and consumer Windows desktops as about enabling enterprises to build better e-business platforms.
Nowadays, Microsoft markets the technology as XML Web services, to highlight the underlying XML protocol in the current components of Web services.
n Hewlett-Packard was perhaps the first to market the Web services vision with its e-speak technology in 1997. At the time it failed to make an impact but the company is back in the fray and is using technology gained from its acquisition of Bluestone to reassert its position and compete with other players.
n Like others, Oracle has committed to Web services and added it to its infrastructure and development technologies. The company sees Web services as a means to support multiple access channels to its e-business platform.
But unless the company buys into the Web services value proposition and deviates from its strategy of regarding an e-business platform as something that should be sold and used on an as-is basis it will struggle to be major provider. Oracle will need to commit to providing an e-business suite as a set of Web services components.