The one trouble with most of the vendors of SOA solutions is that they are actually vendors of technology. As a result they usually fail to see the wood of end users' real needs for the plethora of technological trees with which they are so familiar.
In short, they usually sink back into talking about what is safe home territory to them. The trouble is, it is often inexplicable gobbledegook to everyone else that really should be listening and understanding the concepts for which the technology was created. One of the troubles with SOA technology is that it has become fearsomely complex to all but the four people in the world who really do need to understand it. To real users, however, people with business processes to run, it is meaningless drivel said in a foreign tongue. What they want is information that gives them some idea of what SOA can really do for them and their business.
In old-fashioned IT terms it needs the appearance of a 'killer application'. More specifically, it needs the appearance of a 'killer process' - a capability which gives users that sudden but blindingly obvious insight into why they do need SOA after all; in just the same way that the Lotus 123 spreadsheet - and its progenitor, Visicalc - made business users realise why they really did need the PC after all. And, as with 123, any `killer process’ will not find favour because it is `cool technology’ (and as an aside, I fear I might ritually disembowel the next marketing suit I hear saying those words). Instead, it will find favour because it provides business users with some functionality, some capability, that they did not have before – or least not in such a convenient, appropriate form – and that gives them little option but to admit that they need it.
Lotus 123 was such a good example of this: before it cam along users could work out the formulae needed, they could write down the numbers, but then they had to sit and do the maths the hard way. With 123 they not only got the results (OK, usually accurately) at the press of a RETURN key, but also could repeat it quickly with variations on the number set – the all-important and incredibly useful `what if’ game was born.
So what might that killer app be for SOA? Well, I accept it is still early days but I do believe I have seen a real contender in action. This is a research project dubbed `Secret Island’ being run at IBM’s Hursley Labs. It is currently based on Linden Labs’ Second Life online participatory video gaming environment. There is more detail in a piece I wrote for The Register (www.regdeveloper.co.uk/2006/09/21/ibm_secret/) but suffice it to say here that the use of the game’s avatar representations of individuals starts to make sense when applied to a business environment. I’ll admit I know little of Second Life itself, but I am old enough for that amount to leave me with the question – `why bother? Why not get a real life with real people?’
But to see those avatars representing individuals that could, for example, be in a project team scattered around the world, meeting in whatever combinations of participant that was required, gave it all a direct and obvious purpose. Add in the potential to link those individuals to the applications and services that they use, both within the business and without, and suddenly the `point’ of it jumps out of the screen at you.
To date IBM’s rocket-scientists (led by one Ian Hughes, who has a job title many geeks would die for - `metaverse evangelist’) have only proved the ability to integrate external services with one example – a link to Amazon. But one example does equal a significant potential (API development willing) and the whole point is that, while there is some serious technology going on underneath the current experiment and some even more complex technology required to create an SOA-enabled working environment that businesses could actually exploit, none of that seems relevant. I sat and watched the early demos and thought – `I can see how this could be used….. I could make use of this, even in my job’.
There are bound to be more candidates for SOA killer app. Indeed, this is likely to be one of the next big splurges for off-the-wall development efforts. IBM’s Secret Island may not prove to be the real killer, but it sure as hell shows that the time is right for one to appear.