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Is the "Web" in "Web Services" a Misnomer?

Understanding the Phenomenon Requires Looking Back, Forward, and Around

I know I shall be accused of being old-fashioned, but sometimes in order to understand the present, let alone the future, one of the very best starting-places is the past. Take for example the present surrounding Web services. The best clue to what is happening right now in the early 21st century comes from an English philosopher and political economist who lived and wrote in the 19th century, John Stuart Mill.

No new ideas can make their way in the world, wrote Mill, "until aptly selected words or phrases have, as it were, nailed them down and held them fast." And the (so far, very brief) history of Web services illustrates his point magnificently.

Credit for coining (or first using) the term belongs to Philip Greenspun, the now-retired computer scientist who was a pioneer in developing online communities. Three years ago I asked him whether he recognized the way it was being used, back then, and he didn't. "I might have coined the term but not with its current meaning," he wrote me. 

Greenspun continued: 

"What I meant by a 'Web service'  was what I might today call a 'Web appplication,' i.e. a Web site that does the job formerly done by a desktop app. The Microsoft .NET-style 'Web services' we just called 'Web-based distributed computing'."

In Greenspun's view, "Web services" as it was being used back then (in 2002) was a misnomer.

"I personally think something incorporating the standard 1960s and 1970s term 'distributed computing' is the right one. 'Web services' doesn't fit because most/much of this stuff will eventually be happening on the Internet but without what most people think of as the Web (i.e., users will not be viewing in HTML though probably HTTP will be used so technically it could be called 'Web')."

The characteristic insight and prescience of Greenspun's analysis here was demonstated this week from two diametrically opposed camps.

In San Jose, Sun's president and COO, Jonathan Schwartz, made a speech in which he asserted that the PC is "so yesterday" because the desktop is no longer what matters. What has become important, Schwartz said, are "Web services on the Internet and the mobile phones most will use to access them":

"The majority of the applications that will drive the next wave of innovation will be services, not applications that run on the desktop. The real innovation is occurring in the network and the network services."
Meantime, far to the north of San Jose in Safeco Field in Seattle, WA, where Microsoft was staging its 30th-birthday annual meeting, Bill Gates was reviewing his company's first three decades and chose, out of all the myriad trends and phenomena - guess what - "Web services" as one of the two most central focuses in Microsoft's history:
"As I think about the last 30 years," Gates said, "I’m most proud of our making 'big bets' on technologies like the graphical user interface or Web services and watching them grow into something people rely on every day."

So there we have it. Microsoft wants to chain "Web services" to the realm of the desktop where commercial domination is still possible, while Sun wants to liberate the term to the superset, to the Network itself, a technical meritocracy where no such domination is possible but where the overall global market is so vast that any company with even a single percentage point of it can maintain and nurture a vibrant multibillion dollar business.

Above all, it is precisely the elastic quality of a term like "Web services" that will guarantee its secure place in the i-Technology lexicon for decades to come. It's all a little like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."

More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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