Monday, February 23, 2009

The SOA Tipping Point

Still using a FAX machine? Ever wonder why they are still around. The FAX machine was invented in 1843, but wasn't commercially viable until Sharp produced one in 1984. They managed to sell 80,000 units that year and roughly the same amount in the next several years. At some point, in about 1987, sales of FAX machines transformed from 100,000 a year to 1,000,000; then 2,000,000 in 1989. What happened? What dramatic shift occurred between 1984 and 1987? Nothing. There was no sudden and dramatic event that caused the sudden and dramatic explosion of FAX machines. Except, of course, a slow steady growth of FAX machines.

If you found yourself on another planet with a functioning telephone network, but no Internet, no satellite system, and no cell phones; exactly how valuable would a single FAX machine be to you? Zero,ziltch, nada . How about two FAX machines? OK, depending on where the other machine was and who used it, it may or may not be valuable to you. How about ten FAX machines? OK, this is getting a little more useful. How about 300,000? Ah, now there's a pretty good chance that anything you want to communicate might be possible via FAX. In fact, NOT having a FAX machine might put someone at a disadvantage in a business scenario.

That's what happened in 1987 with FAX machines, the slow steady growth of the units from 1984 through 1986 led to a situation where not having a machine could jeopardize your ability to compete. So, overnight, the sales of FAX machines increased ten fold. Roughly 300,000 units was the tipping point. Tipping Point is the name of a book by Malcolm Gladwell in which he discusses this and other situations where an apparent modest change in some behavior; a few people buying Hush Puppy shoes or a few fewer dropouts in a school system, can have a disproportionate effect of a worldwide clamoring for suede footwear, or a 50% decrease in crime.

The same tipping point that caused the FAX machine jump in the late 1980s, reoccurred with cell phones a decade later. It is an interesting oddity that a seemingly small change, consistent with historical behavior can suddenly and dramatically change future behavior. For years companies have been slowly adopting service oriented architecture (SOA) concepts and technologies such as XML-based Web services. Like FAX machines and cell phones, reusable business services are useful only when the providers and consumers can (and do) speak the same language. XML-based Web services is the mutually sharable language.

We have reached the tipping point for SOA and XML-based Web services. FAX machines didn't kill off messenger services, cell phones didn't kill off land lines, and Web services won't kill off MQ Messaging, FTP, batch jobs, or CRON . But developers building real-time access to sharable applications and business functions will start to use XML-based Web services as the default. Expectations will grow that developers are either providing Web services, or consuming them. Assumptions will be made that all developers, regardless of platform, understand XML (valid and well-formed), Name Spaces,DTDs , and end points. Those without a working knowledge of these technologies will be as out of place in the Information Technology space as a mom without a cell phone, a minivan, and a GPS.

Twenty years after the commercial advent of FAX machines, they are still in use today largely due to how ubiquitous they were and how easy they are to use. The PDF file has done a lot to erase the need for stand alone FAX machine, which are now integrated into printer/scanner/FAX units. Sales of those by the way, increased by 340% from 2001 - 2007. Once the SOA adoption point has started to tip, it will be with us for a long, long time.

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