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Apple and Web services

In this first part of a two-part column, we look at what Apple is doing today in Web services, and what the future may hold.

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Apple and Web services
When you think of Web services, one of the last companies you think of — if you think of it at all — is Apple. The company has been all but invisible when it comes to the technology. But Apple has quietly taken some tentative steps towards developing Web services technology, notably with its WebObjects application development environment. And the long-popular FileMaker database, with a strong and loyal following of Mac aficionados, may well be a backdoor way for Apple to make inroads into the Web services market as well.

In this first part of a two-part column, we'll look at what Apple is doing today in Web services, and what the future might hold. In the next column, we'll take a closer look at Apple Web-services related products.

Web services, WebObjects and OS X
The biggest announcement that Apple has made to date about Web services came in November, when it released an upgrade of its WebObjects development environment. The product supports the basic Web services standards including XML, SOAP, and WSDL; integrates with services built with Java, AppleScript, Perl and .Net; and lets you deploy to any J2EE server or the WebObjects J2SE application server. With it, developers can create applications, without having to write low-level code for SOAP and XML.

But while WebObjects is the most visible Apple-related Web service product, it's not the only one, according to Ron Schmelzer, founder and senior analyst of the ZapThink consulting group.

"Another significant advance (for Apple in Web services) is the OS X operating system itself," he maintains. "It has a UNIX core, and so it will be much easier to port open source Web services tools to the Mac platform."

Additionally, he says that the FileMaker workgroup database, owned by the FileMaker Apple subsidiary, may quietly become a backdoor development tool used by Apple devotees in corporations, particularly at the departmental level.

"FileMaker has added some significant XML features," Schmelzer says. "But the big problem it faces is that usually its databases are not integrated with corporate systems. Instead, they're being used in small workgroups. So departments can use FileMaker as a front end of choice and can then integrate it with larger corporate databases, using Web services and XML."

Jay Welshofer, senior product manager for FileMaker, concurs with Schmelzer about FileMaker's role in the Web services future. Users "aren't going to build Web services using FileMaker, but they are going to start asking 'Isn't there data out there that I can get access to more easily?' They may not know that much about Web services, but they know that there's data they want, and they should be able to get to it."

As a real-life example, Welshofer points to what is being done at the FileMaker company itself. The company has a "financial services backend with a large, ponderous interface," that is difficult to use. So an employee wrote a Java servlet that acts as an intermediary between the backend and an easy-to-use front end written with FileMaker.

"If you want to use a loose definition of a Web service, he wrote one," Welshofer maintains. "And that's the kind of thing you'll see happening — it being used first on a departmental level to support integration" with corporate information available in XML or via Web services.

Apple has already brought Web services not just to the department level, but all the way down to individual users. In a little-heralded using XML, Apple has created what it might call "Web services for the rest of us." In August, it released its "Jaguar" update to OS X, which includes a redone Sherlock search tool that delivers a wide variety of information and services to users via XML, including MovieFone movie listings, access to eBay auctions, and to the YellowPage.com site. Developers can write plug-ins to the service, and anyone can download and use them. Most people won't even realize that they're using XML when they use these plug-ins, but Sherlock is so widely used, that it may well be the most popular use of XML on the Internet.

Ironically, the services delivered by Sherlock are the kind of services that Microsoft first promised would be available via .NET, but which haven't materialized. Microsoft has so far abandoned these kinds of consumer-level XML and Web services, and instead is pursuing enterprise-level solutions with .NET.

Apple's strategy and the future
As for Apple's overall strategy, Schmelzer says that Apple "is not trying to compete with enterprise software players. They just want to make sure that their technologies can be used to integrate with the rest of the enterprise. They're not trying to sell dozens of servers, offer consulting and sell big iron to power large enterprises. Instead, they're trying to find a role in workgroups or departments. They've always had the strength in the knowledge worker category, and their strategy is aimed at that, at designers and workers in office-type environments, and at educators who want something done quickly and well. Productivity is their goal — they want people to able to choose their own tools, platforms and services."

For Apple to succeed with Web services, however, it's going to have to win the hearts and minds of developers as well as corporate America, and it's not clear at all that the company is targeting developers — or even that it's willing to try. The company is not active on Web services standards committees, for example, and it does very little to tout its Web services strategy. In fact, Apple declined to have any employees interviewed for this column to describe or comment on the company's Web services strategy.

As another example of how the company hasn't won the hearts and minds of developers, Schmelzer notes that even though it would be relatively easy to port open source Web services tools to OS X, "people aren't doing it because there is no perceived market demand." He add, "Apple isn't on committees, and it's not active in this at all. If this was 1986, they'd be all over this technology, but it's a new world now, and instead you see companies like IBM and BEA involved."

Given all this, it's not at all clear how successful the company will be when it comes to Web services. Much of the company's success, however, will hinge on the success of WebObjects, which we'll look at in more detail in the next column.

Continues in Part Two

About the Author

Preston Gralla, a well-known technology expert, is the author of more than 20 books, including "How the Internet Works," which has been translated into 14 languages and sold several hundred thousand copies worldwide. He is an expert on Web services and the author of a major research and white paper for the Software and Information Industry Association on the topic. Gralla was the founding managing editor of PC Week, a founding editor and then editor and editorial director of PC/Computing, and an executive editor for ZDNet and CNet. He has written about technology for more than 15 years for many major magazines and newspapers, including PC Magazine, Computerworld, CIO Magazine, eWeek and its forerunner PC Week, PC/Computing, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Dallas Morning News among others. As a well-known technology guru, he appears frequently on TV and radio shows and networks, including CNN, MSNBC, ABC World News Now, the CBS Early Show, PBS's All Things Considered and others. He has won a number of awards for his writing, including from the Computer Press Association for the Best Feature in a Computer Publication. He can be reached at preston@gralla.com.

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This was last published in February 2003

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