The holy grail of machine talk
By Nick Easen for CNN
(CNN) -- The concept of machines talking to machines without any human interaction has long been a holy grail for the technology and commercial world.
It is called Web services -- but it has nothing to do with the Internet directly -- instead it is the name given to the universal language that computers around the globe may one day use to describe each object in our physical world.
This "meta-language" will allow computers to tell the difference between pens and pencils, strip lights and light bulbs, as well make intelligent, informed decisions and act on them.
"Web services is the next step in helping companies link systems," said Howard Smith of Computer Sciences Corporation.
"But the world is not a neat little set of services. It's full of dynamic, ever-changing business processes," adds Smith.
Already corporations in isolation use smart communication tools to allow elements of their business to talk to one another.
One company in the U.S., Johnson Controls, is already deploying Web services to manage heating, air-conditioning, ventilation, fire alarms and security in non-residential buildings.
They have embedded devices in their equipment to monitor performance and if anything goes wrong they will proactively notify personnel to upgrade failing machines.
Initially the Web service-based technology was a complex system to deploy, but according to Eric Austvold, IT specialist at AMR Research, it added value to the business and simplified the use of technology for all concerned.
According to industry experts, the uptake of Web services -- like that of the early PC, spreadsheets and databases -- will soon accelerate and take over many more business processes.
"It's a matter of adding layer upon layer of additional data to XML (eXtensible Markup Language) to give meaning to it. This then opens up applications for that data and there is no end to this," says Smith.
XML is now the Internet standard for marking up data to help information exchange between businesses, it is independent of applications and platforms.
An industry body is already in place -- the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), which is a global consortium driving the development, convergence and adoption of e-business standards.
This has support from industry leaders such as Ascential Software, BEA Systems, Informatica, IONA, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, HP, TIBCO Software, Inc., and webMethods.
Although this body is hoping to develop open standards for Web services, which are domain, platform and vendor neutral, human nature is likely to slow up the process.
"The greatest limiting factor is standards agreement among all parties that can author Web services," Austvold told CNN.
Competitive situations and questions over intellectual property may also limit a wider adoption of Web services in the years to come.
"The widespread use of Web services as a communications standard for any machine to talk to any machine is 10-plus years away," Eric Austvold of AMR Research told CNN.
There are also limitations in the processing power of computers to handle vast amounts of data that are required for machine-to-machine interaction.
"Meta-language is just emerging, and the semantic Web -- an extension of the current Web in which information is given well-defined meaning enabling computers and people to work in cooperation -- is only in its early stages," adds Austvold.
We will have to wait until everyone can agree on a standard before Web services really takes off, but when it does the number of business systems it could infiltrate will only be limited by the imagination.