If proof were wanted that Web services is more than smoke and mirrors, then one need look no further than MagNetPoint, which is involved in the somewhat arcane practice of welding Web services applications together and testing them in its development environment before they are deployed in real-world environments.
MagNetPoint has two main offerings, which it gathers together under the name MagNetStudio. The first, called Net Playground, is a set of tools for building and testing Web services in various run-time environments. The second is a set of about 150 services that customers can use, adapt or integrate with their own applications. The company believes its approach is in step with the times as far Web services is concerned, because so many applications are still at the prototype stage. But despite the fact that companies may be experimenting ahead of a full deployment, MagNetPoint still gets paid when they use its system for that experimentation, as well as at deployment time.
Its proposition is that companies would rather use an existing environment to build and test their Web services applications on various types of networks and platforms rather than buy all those switches, gateways and application servers and write interfaces to them. As MagNetPoint chief technology officer Kayvan Alikhani puts it, "would you want to deal with passing packets over IP on a Mobitex network, or present it as a Web service?"
MagNetPoint started life two years ago with a presence-based messaging suite, and that still forms the backbone of its suite of Web services. It splits its Web services applications into 15 categories -- such as messaging, SMS services, business rules, VoiceXML and voice resources, presence and availability management, location-based services, paging and interactive TV, among others. It also has connections to networks from its hosted environment, including Sprint PCS and AT&T Wireless, 42 paging providers and the public switched telephone network (PSTN). The company has found the major uses for Web services to be monitoring for events, rendering on multiple devices, notification and synchronization.
MagNetStudio is similar to Microsoft's My Services .NET, (which was code-named Hailstorm), and although MagNetPoint VP of strategy David Knight points out that the latter won't be ready until next year, such tardiness has never been a barrier to success at Microsoft. However, MagNetPoint views its stuff as the Java alternative to Hailstorm, and has written interfaces to things like Java application servers that Microsoft is unlikely to support.
A typical customer engagement for MagNetPoint starts with the use of its Net Playground tools. Eventually, it plans to integrate with tools like Microsoft Visual Studio .NET or Sun Microsystems' Forte development tools to assemble the Web services applications. The customer may choose to use some of MagNetPoint's existing applications to take advantage of the interfaces it has already produced, or write them from scratch.
Then they test it by deploying it in MagNetPoint's hosted environment. Finally, MagNetPoint hands them off to a hosting partner, or the customer hosts the application itself. Alikhani emphasizes that MagNetPoint has no interest in being a full-time ASP for production applications.
OpenTV used MagNetPoint to connect its interactive TV-based chat to RIM's Blackberry pagers and to the ICQ, MSN and Yahoo IM networks. In the testing phase, OpenTV maintained its software at the cable head-end and connected to MagNetPoint's presence server deployed on its servers to test the viability of the connectors to RIM and the IM networks. Once complete, MagNetPoint stuck its presence server and various connectors on a CD for OpenTV to deploy itself. Other customers include GM's OnStar unit, which used MagNetPoint to connect its telematics to PDAs and a text-to-speech engine, and Hitachi America, which built an application for remote access to messages stored behind a firewall.
Competition and partners
MagNetPoint claims no direct competition, believing that this is land-grab time as developers get up to speed, but admits that it gets lumped in with Cape Clear when companies are looking at using Web services to build abstraction layers on top of legacy applications.
Eventually, if Web services are to become viable in the long term, hosting providers, application networks and large companies themselves will have to host similar networks of applications in real-world deployments. That is being attempted by companies such as Grand Central, Kenamea and Flamenco Networks. For MagNetPoint, a partnership with Flamenco would make sense, as it is looking for companies to develop Web services to run across its network.
In corporate development terms, MagNetPoint has always had a close relationship with Hewlett-Packard, but is now cultivating closer ties with Sun and IBM. It is also looking for funding -- CEO Ron Hooper says there has been plenty of interest, but he needs a lead investor to steer the round.
Hooper admits that there is a danger, given MagNetPoint's strict standards compliance, of its business becoming commoditized -- but not for a while, as he feels it has erected a significant barrier to competitors entering this space given the two years' work it has already done building gateways and integrating with networks. A cynic might say that MagNetPoint has taken a long time to find its m?er. Time will tell on the commodity question, but in the meantime, it's an interesting model.
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