Hardware vendors scramble to reinvent themselves for Web services market

Last month, another runner entered the race to decide who will be the king of the nascent Web services market, albeit a lap or two behind some of its top competitors. With an announcement in San Francisco, Hewlett-Packard took its first strides in what could be a marathon effort to get customers viewing them as a software vendor as well as a seller of hardware.

The initiative was in part launched to address what many analysts and vendors believe will be the next “big thing” in the world of Information Technology – Web services. That is, the notion of delivering specialized applications to end users over the Internet, as opposed to the commonly used client-server model, or other application delivery architectures, such as the “dumb terminal” approach. Advantages of such a model include the ability to combine services with other ones much more easily than has been the case in the past, and faster turnaround times of IT-driven products.

HP faces two big challenges in particular as it enters this market: timing and reputation. HP is entering this game later than they probably would have liked. Software giant Microsoft (surprise, surprise) got the Web services ball rolling last June with the launch of its .Net architecture. The platform allows developers to create Web services by establishing a middleware layer that lets Windows applications share Web services with software built in other languages and operating systems.

Then, in late January, Sun Microsystems got into the race with the launch of its Sun ONE (for Open Network Environment). It is a Java-based architecture for creating, assembling and deploying Web services, which Sun likes to refer to as “Smart” services. Other players who have jumped out ahead of HP in the Web services arena include IBM and Oracle.

Because the notion of Web services is still such a new concept that many enterprises probably haven’t had time to digest and understand the implications of, a late entry into the game might not hinder HP too severely. However, HP’s tardy arrival on the scene can’t help but create a little doubt in the minds of prospective adopters of this technology as to the company’s ability to develop the cutting-edge ideas that will drive it.

A similar perception problem surrounds HP in its drive to establish itself as a bona fide software player. Make no mistake about it, this company is most closely associated with its proven ability to deliver servers and other hardware elements. Changing the course of that ship will not be done overnight, so HP better get the marketing sails hoisted and hope for some favourable winds if it intends to do so.

A small positive in this area is that some of HP’s competitors also face this uphill climb to be seen as a viable software player. This group includes Sun and IBM, although Sun, with its Java platform and language, has a step or two on HP in this department.

Presuming that the Web services model takes hold in the enterprise to the extent that these companies say it will, a number of issues already surrounding networks will become more pronounced. Security is a prime example. With current security methods proven to be anything but infallible, companies will most certainly look with hesitancy upon a model that puts more reliance upon the Internet.

Will a firm, for instance, be willing to run a database with sensitive financial figures over the Internet? Some undoubtedly will, but on what vendor’s platform will they feel most comfortable doing so? Mostlikely the one whose platform is built on software that has proven to be the most reliable.

This isn’t to say that HP isn’t in the Web services race – it just might need a better pair of running shoes than its competitors to let the world know what it can do.