BT's Web services - the clue is in the tedium

Peter Judge: Finally, someone takes Web services seriously enough to give them a really, really dull pitch. This could be the start of something big.
Written by Peter Judge, Contributor

In some ways, the arrival of Web services in BT's portfolio marks the coming of age of the technology -- and not necessarily in a good way. From being a hot, theoretical possibility that can solve all the world's IT troubles (maybe, someday) Web services now takes its place, at one of the world's least "exciting" companies, alongside such dull-but-worthy offerings as Web and email hosting.

If anything can propel a technology down to the "trough of disillusionment" of Gartner's hype curve, the point where a technology is at its least fashionable, it is a full-blown, all-stops-out launch of the service by BT.

When BT starts to tell you that Web services is a jolly good thing for businesses to do, it's like when your auntie says she's switched on to like rock'n'roll. When that happens, it's just not cool any more. At the launch of BT's Web services push, the foyer of BT's Centre in the City was awash with wireless-enabled iPaqs, and they all gave access to corporate videos.

Just how un-cool is BT's take? Get this -- it costs real money. There's a £10,000 charge for a consultant to start thinking about it, and it costs £20,000 a month to try dressing your legacy applications in a Web services wrapper at a BT test site. This, according to BT Ignite CEO Andy Green, is a "low risk strategy".

This tells us that BT is selling this to people who regard a burn-rate of a quarter million per year, on something that might not pay off, as a low risk strategy. "Not many people make a quarter of a million profit in a year just now," said analyst Clive Longbottom of Quocirca. The target market is BT's existing customer base, says Longbottom, people for whom BT is already a trusted partner.

To reach its targets -- £300m a year in Web services business by 2004 -- BT will have to reach outside that base, and that will be the problem for the telco. People who don't already have a big contract with BT's services or integration departments see this as the leviathan struggling to get reliable ADSL to people's homes. "It has a hell of a lot of baggage to carry to new sites," said Longbottom.

The company is also doing its best to simplify it. Green, with some apologies to the experts in the audience, gave a version of how Web services works, based on a business that BT had to separate from some years back -- the Post Office. According to this, a Web service is like getting a TV licence by post. The UDDI library of Web services is the equivalent of the forms in the post office, WSDL represents the English language you use to fill the form out, and the SOAP object wrapper represents the envelope you post the form in.

Yep -- once cool and incomprehensible, Web services are now just about as exciting as buying a TV licence at the Post Office.

And yet, this may exactly what has to happen at this point -- at least among people like BT's customers.

For the enterprise, Web services are a way to integrate the applications your business uses, from the bottom up. This is a big change from previous top-down architectures which turned out to be top-heavy and impossible to implement.

The whole point about Gartner's hype curve is that when a technology gets so unfashionable as to hit the trough of disillusionment, the backlash wipes off the hype, takes the price down to a realistic level and sets the technology on the road to profitability.

It may be exciting when it is risky, but it's only when it becomes part of the corporate atmosphere that technology really starts to be useful.

So I say, yay BT! Go for it! Tell the world that Web services are just the thing for (yawn) linking CRM with (sigh) ERP, and glueing together the dusty old (ho-hum) EAI applications the enterprise has in its back rooms.

At the moment, the sales pitch is still frankly, a bit high-octane. If Web services are to fulfil their real potential, they do have to become very very dull. But BT's announcement is a real start.

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