What the hell are Web services, anyway?

Inside the Internet.
July 26 2002 11:14 AM

Tangling the Web

How Web services are changing the Internet.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Last week, the geek community shivered in excitement when Amazon followed in Google's footsteps by releasing a set of "Web services." Before that, Microsoft made a huge fuss about Web services when it announced its ".Net" strategy a couple of years ago. Back then, Web services were supposed to be the next big thing: They'd let you check your mail with your toaster, wash your car using your cell phone, and so forth. Now we're finally seeing Web services, and it's starting to look like they really will change the Internet. But despite all the hype, you probably still don't know what a Web service is.

It's a fairly simple piece of technology. In essence, a Web service is just a special type of Web page, but instead of being formatted prettily for the human eye, the page is formatted for a computer to read. The technology makes it easy for some Web site developers (like Amazon's) to produce such a page and for other developers (like me) to retrieve the information therein. Suddenly any Web site (including yours) can display up-to-the-minute information from Amazon or Google, whether it be "people who bought my book also bought …" or "the top 10 news stories on the Web."

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Sounds like no big deal. But until recently, it's been difficult for a computer to ask a Web site for information. Say Slate wanted to have a counter that showed the current Amazon sales ranking of Jacob Weisberg's book Bushisms. Until last week that entailed writing a program that accessed the same page you and I see and then stripped out the 62.5k of information on the page that isn't the sales ranking being sought. To complicate matters, Amazon constantly changes its Web site, so the program would need to be modified frequently. A Web service for Amazon's sales rankings eliminates all that work. No fuss, no bother, and no maintenance. Google's Web services generate similar possibilities. For instance, my Web site might use Google's Web services to list the newest 10 sites that link to it.

For now, Google limits free Web service searches to 1,000 per customer each day. One day Google might charge for its Web services. But Amazon's economics are clearer: As a commerce Web site, any information Amazon allows to be published on other pages is free advertising for a potential sale. Check out Amazon Light, which presents a stripped-down version of Amazon that promises faster, more efficient browsing and shopping. Amazon Light earns a commission on all the sales it refers to Amazon, but Amazon apparently is glad to have the business.

Other Amazon-related Web services that have arisen over the past week repurpose a narrower slice of Amazon's content. Book Watch Plus (this popular site is sometimes inaccessible; try back again later if you can't reach it) uses Web services from Google, Amazon, and OnFocus.com's Bookwatch, a site that scans new Weblog entries via weblogs.com for mentions of books. The result is a "hot books" list that shows what books people are talking about on the Web, and why.A couple of years ago such a confluence of services would have required myriad partnership agreements and many weeks or months of programming. But now it takes only a matter of hours.

Will Web services like these lead inevitably to Internet-enabled toasters? Your bagels are counting on it. Web services are like LEGOs: They snap together in almost limitless combinations. As the big sites bring their Web services on board it's easy to imagine your home page summarizing the items you have for sale on eBay, displaying whether you're available to chat via AOL or Yahoo!, and mapping the current location of the airplane you're on via Expedia.

But the real challenge (and the way to the real money) will be using these tools to break new ground. It will be interesting to see what new services emerge from small sites and individuals, not just the Net's big boys. For the Web consumer, it will quickly become unremarkable to see information and services from many providers combined in imaginative and useful ways. Suddenly no Web site is an island, and maybe no toaster either.

Bill Barnes, Slate's founding program manager, draws and co-writes the daily comic strip Overdue.

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