Why REST is More Like Religion than Most Technologies

As someone whose entire career has been involved with technology platforms, and specifically programming platforms in some form or another, it’s clear to me something which is obvious to most patient observers: that adherents of a particular technology platform tend to become very “religious” about it.

Advocates of specific a technology platform are known to rather vigoursly proselytize and defend their technology platform of choice, and they are also known to call out “blasphemy” (as they see it) against their technology platform. I guess it’s just human nature to gravitate to concepts and communities and to then defend them from perceived outside attackers. I myself have at times been among the technology platform devout over the years though I do try my best to keep it in check.

But I’ve noticed that the concept of RESTfulness in Web APIs has a religious tenor that is beyond what I’ve observed elsewhere. This post’s goal is to explain what I’ve perceived. As you read, note that I make several points along that way that seem to unrelated, but I bring them together at the end.

Well-Known Founders

Many technology platforms, while possibly having a single founder are promoted by companies and over time their marketing and promotion tend to minimize the founder’s visibility among its adherents, such as Windows, Java, .NET, Zend Framework, Sitecore and ExpressionEngine to name some commercial examples.

Yet other technology platforms have a single visible founder and they tend to be open source, for example: Linux, PHP, Python, Ruby on Rails, Drupal and WordPress to name just a few.

Like these mentioned open-source technology platforms REST also has a well-known founder Dr. Roy Fielding who named and defined REST in his chapter 5 of his doctoral thesis, titled Representational State Transfer (REST).

Architectural Style vs. Platform

Now if Dr. Fielding reads this post I’m sure he would first object to my associating REST with Platforms; he has made it clear on numerous occassions he considers REST to be an Architectural Style and not a Platform.

That’s fine and I don’t disagree in the least, but I’m associating them because they share at least one (1) attribute. Few (if any?) architecture styles have emerged that are the result of one man’s PhD definition, as I’m far as I am aware. And that has ramifications that caused REST to be treated by its adherents more like a software platform than a lower-level architectural style.

Requirements and Constraints

Unlike most technology platforms which are often not focused on the rules of how to use it properly, REST is instead a prescription for the requirements and constraints a system must follow. In other words its about both what you must and what you cannot do (in order to be considered RESTful).

Potential critics of this post might point out that that is the point of an architectural style. But this style has an engenered a level of religious fevor, similar to that seen around technology platforms that I’m not aware any of other architectural style receiving, at least not lately.

The Good Book

And this prescription for must and must not is where REST starts to look a lot more like a religion than most technology platforms. The Torah, the Bible and the Koran, for example, they are all written works that prescribe correct and incorrect behavior among their faithful. Similarly Roy’s thesis defines what is and what is not correct among the REST faithful.

God and the 10 Commandments

While most technology platforms that have a visible founder see the founder actively involved in evangelizing, writing about, and shepherding their platform on an ongoing basis, Dr. Fielding has pretty much been an absentee founder. In the earlier days of the web he was active on W3C and related mailing lists, and he wrote a seminal post clarifying (especially in his reply to comments) that REST APIs must be hypertext-driven But since then Dr. Fielding has been conspiculously absent when any of the debates regarding the application of REST have emerged.

In many ways Roy has been for REST like the God of the Old Testament; he spoke to the people in the early days and wrote his “commandments” in the form of his thesis, but since then the faithful have only had his thesis and that one blog post to clarify the meaning of REST.

Disagreement and Debate

Today, fourteen (14) years since Roy’s thesis and six (6) years after his seminal post on REST disagreement and debate rages on regarding RESTfulness and Web APIs, its relative usefulness, the level of RESTful purity required, and especially as it relates to one specific constraint; HATEOAS.

I’d link to specific debates but there are so many yet few epic or seminal debates so it’s hard to pick just one. But I can link to several conferences and mailing lists where you’ll find these debates and mentions of REST-related debates on blogs across the web:

The primary things you’ll find among these debates is disagreement on the role of hypermedia and an assertion that permeates much of the dialog among the most fervent being that most other people building APIs “don’t get it” and “are doing it wrong.” On the other hand there appears to be very little agreement on how to do it right, at least when it comes to specifics.

I will say that I do tend to agree with those debating that most people do not get it and that they are doing it wrong because parts of REST are not easy to fully understand so it’s very difficult to be sure of what exactly “right” is. And why is that?

Exegesis

It boils down to this. There’s little disagreement about who gets to define REST; everyone (I know of) points to Dr. Fielding as being authoritative and his writings canoncial. REST was defined by this one (1) man who wrote down it’s specification in an academically defined manner sans examples, and then briefly clarified it in one (1) blog post with follow up replies to questions for about two weeks after.

Since then the REST faithful have been left to interpret what REST means on their own much like the process of Exegesis related to religious texts.

And like religious movements, REST has a good many people who have taken it upon themselves to explain the meaning of The Good Book and the intentions of it’s founder. Without Fielding actively participating and making judgements on these debates who has the authority to declare who is right and who it wrong?

What if God was One of Us?

Imagine if God had decided to hang around all these years and intervene on the topic of religous debates? Imagine how much less contentious religion would be?

In that vein, I leave you with this joke from Emo Phillips as hopefully an appropriate analogy:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.

I said, “Don’t do it!”
He said, “Nobody loves me.”

I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
He said, “A Christian.”

I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?”
He said, “Protestant.”

I said, “Me, too! What franchise?”
He said, “Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”

I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

P.S. Credit for Inspiration

This entire post was inspired by Nick Kallen’s comment on Roy’s blog post about REST and hypermedia. His comment starts with this (emphasis mine):

I had a hard time with the writing in this article; I don’t normally perform exegesis on blog posts. Am I interpreting this correctly?

RESTful Web Services in a WordPress Plugin?

UPDATE (2011-04-15):

Since I wrote this post I’ve learned a tremendous amount about WordPress plugin development; so much so that I can’t overstate how much more I know today than when I wrote this post years ago.  So, while the following post might be a novelty to read, I highly recommend that you don’t use this approach.

The only way that a RESTful approach to web services in WordPress would make sense to me is if a team of rockstar WordPress plugin developers were to create a fully fleshed-out extension to WordPress that offered a complete RESTful web service implementation including one that addressed all edge cases and security concerns; only then I would consider not defaulting to the non-RESTful approach WordPress uses for AJAX.  

In summary I recommend not trying to swim upstream today and instead use the approach provided by WordPress. Who knows, maybe in the future there will be a viable method of doing RESTful web services in WordPress.


So I’ve got a project where I need to have a Flash component built in Flex to call to a WordPress blog and get information about it’s latest post. Should be no problem right?  The easy way to do this would be to just write a "rest.php" file and brute-force all the setup that WordPress does but I thought it would be so much more valuable to implement this as a plug-in.

I figured that I’d just quickly learn how to build a WordPress plug-in and create one for exposing RESTful web services; after all with a year of programming Drupal modules WordPress’ plug-in API can’t be that hard, right?  Well turns out it wasn’t that easy and I think I have run into a design limitation with WordPress and I’m beginning to wish I’d just taken the brute-force approach and said to hell with writing a plug-in.

Although I am not 100% certain, and I hope someone can point out that I’m just doing something wrong, it seems sadly like I’m pushing the edges of the WordPress API and exposing where it’s design falls short. By the way, I’m working with WordPress v2.5 because why upgrade mid-project when god knows if WordPress will release another in the remaining days before this project is done and I’ll just have to do again before deployment?

Here’s the details.  I started writing a plug-in called "RESTful Services" with a goal of implementing URLs that behave in the following fashion; {format} could potentially be html, xhtml, json, xml, rss, atom, etc.:

http://example.com/services.{format}
Provide a list of RESTful services in specified {format}, defaults to html
http://example.com/services/{service}.{format}/{data}?{params
Provide a RESTful service in specified {format}, defaults to html, with optional provided data and parameters.

But before I got all those options working I just wanted to service a page from my RESTful Services plugin where Content-Type: text/plain. I found this page that professes to explain how to hook into the URL routing and after a few fits and starts I can came up with the following code for my plugin that would indeed response to my http://example.com/services URL:

wp-content/plugins/restful-services/restful-web-services.php:

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add_action('init', 'restful_services_flush_rewrite_rules');
function restful_services_flush_rewrite_rules() {    
  global $wp_rewrite;
  $wp_rewrite->flush_rules();
}       
 
add_filter('generate_rewrite_rules', 'restful_services_add_rewrite_rules');
function restful_services_add_rewrite_rules( $wp_rewrite ) {      
  $new_rules = array(        
    'services' => 'wp-content/plugins/restful-services/rest.php',     
  );
  $wp_rewrite->rules = $new_rules + $wp_rewrite->rules;
}

The problem with the above was that it wouldn’t call "wp-content/plugins/restful-services/rest.php"; it would simply continued to call "index.php" and display the home page!  After literally hours and hours of debugging with my trusty PhpEd IDE & debugger I was able to find that the code on lines 737 & 738 of "wp-includes/query.php" told WordPress that my service was the home page! It is almost seems like the "generate_rewrite_rules" was implemented as "a good idea" yet no testing has ever been done on it because for the best I can tell it doesn’t work. (Note I’ve reformatted the code to multiple lines so that it is easier to read and does not extend past the right margin of my blog):

wp-includes/query.php:

if ( !(  $this->is_singular                           
      || $this->is_archive                           
      || $this->is_search                           
      || $this->is_feed                           
      || $this->is_trackback                           
      || $this->is_404                           
      || $this->is_admin                           
      || $this->is_comments_popup ) )   
       $this->is_home = true;

I could possibly hack it to get past this by setting one of those to "true", but none of them are really appropriate; there is nothing there quite like an "is_service" instance variable. Setting something like "this->is_singular" or "this->is_feed" might work but it could manifest incompatibility problems with other plugins or future versions of WordPress. Frankly it was rather disappointing to discover this because it tells me that WordPress has hard-coded all the potential scenarios and doesn’t really have a way around it. Seems to me there should really be a hook here and the type of pages should be allowed to be expanded by plugins rather than be hardcoded as only one of ’singular’, ‘archive’, ’search’, ‘feed’, … and ‘home.’

Anyway, where this manifests itself is "wp-includes/template-loader.php" file which I have included in it’s entirety below.  It is on lines 24 and 25 where the template loader loaded the home page because it’s not possible to specify otherwise:

wp-includes/template-loader.php:

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/**
 * Loads the correct template based on the visitor's url
 * @package WordPress
 */
if ( defined('WP_USE_THEMES') && constant('WP_USE_THEMES') ) {
  do_action('template_redirect');
  $is_home = is_home() ;
  if ( is_robots() ) {
    do_action('do_robots');
    return;
  } else if ( is_feed() ) {
    do_feed();
    return;
  } else if ( is_trackback() ) {
    include(ABSPATH . 'wp-trackback.php');
    return;
  } else if ( is_404() && $template = get_404_template() ) {
    include($template);
    return;
  } else if ( is_search() && $template = get_search_template() ) {
    include($template);
    return;
  } else if ( is_home() && $template = get_home_template() ) {
    include($template);
    return;
  } else if ( is_attachment() && $template = get_attachment_template() ) {
    remove_filter('the_content', 'prepend_attachment');
    include($template);
    return;
  } else if ( is_single() && $template = get_single_template() ) {
    include($template);
    return;
  } else if ( is_page() && $template = get_page_template() ) {
    include($template);
    return;
  } else if ( is_category() && $template = get_category_template()) {
    include($template);
    return;
  } else if ( is_tag() && $template = get_tag_template()) {
    include($template);
    return;
  } else if ( is_tax() && $template = get_taxonomy_template()) {
    include($template);
    return;
  } else if ( is_author() && $template = get_author_template() ) {
    include($template);
    return;
  } else if ( is_date() && $template = get_date_template() ) {
    include($template);
    return;
  } else if ( is_archive() && $template = get_archive_template() ) {
    include($template);
    return;
  } else if ( is_comments_popup() && $template = get_comments_popup_template() ) {
    include($template);
    return;
  } else if ( is_paged() && $template = get_paged_template() ) {
    include($template);
    return;
  } else if ( file_exists(TEMPLATEPATH . "/index.php") ) {
    include(TEMPLATEPATH . "/index.php");
    return;
  }
} else {
  // Process feeds and trackbacks even if not using themes.
  if ( is_robots() ) {
    do_action('do_robots');
    return;
  } else if ( is_feed() ) {
    do_feed();
    return;
  } else if ( is_trackback() ) {
    include(ABSPATH . 'wp-trackback.php');
    return;
  }
}

Still another problem in this puzzle is the $wp->send_headers() method shown being called here on line 293 of "wp-includes/classes.php":

wp-includes/classes.php:

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function main($query_args = '') {   
  $this->init();   
  $this->parse_request($query_args);   
  $this->send_headers(); 
  $this->query_posts();  
  $this->handle_404();   
  $this->register_globals();   
  do_action_ref_array('wp', array(&$this));   
}

The problem with the $wp->send_headers(), also from "wp-includes/classes.php", is that it seems to have the option of either serving an HTML content type on line 183 and 185, or a content type based on a feed (the content types for the feeds are set in their respective "wp-includes/feed-*.php" files) but no custom content types as far as I can determine as there seems to be no way to override calling this function or the logic path contained within:

wp-includes/classes.php:

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function send_headers() {
  @header('X-Pingback: '. get_bloginfo('pingback_url'));
  if ( is_user_logged_in() )
    nocache_headers();
  if ( !empty($this->query_vars['error']) && '404' == $this->query_vars['error'] ) {
    status_header( 404 );
    if ( !is_user_logged_in() )
      nocache_headers();
    @header('Content-Type: ' . get_option('html_type') . '; charset=' . get_option('blog_charset'));
  } else if ( empty($this->query_vars['feed']) ) {
    @header('Content-Type: ' . get_option('html_type') . '; charset=' . get_option('blog_charset'));
  } else {
    // We're showing a feed, so WP is indeed the only thing that last changed
    if ( !empty($this->query_vars['withcomments'])
      || ( empty($this->query_vars['withoutcomments'])
        && ( !empty($this->query_vars['p'])
          || !empty($this->query_vars['name'])
          || !empty($this->query_vars['page_id'])
          || !empty($this->query_vars['pagename'])
          || !empty($this->query_vars['attachment'])
          || !empty($this->query_vars['attachment_id'])
        )
      )
    )
      $wp_last_modified = mysql2date('D, d M Y H:i:s', get_lastcommentmodified('GMT'), 0).' GMT';
    else
      $wp_last_modified = mysql2date('D, d M Y H:i:s', get_lastpostmodified('GMT'), 0).' GMT';
    $wp_etag = '"' . md5($wp_last_modified) . '"';
    @header("Last-Modified: $wp_last_modified");
    @header("ETag: $wp_etag");
 
    // Support for Conditional GET
    if (isset($_SERVER['HTTP_IF_NONE_MATCH']))
      $client_etag = stripslashes(stripslashes($_SERVER['HTTP_IF_NONE_MATCH']));
    else $client_etag = false;
 
    $client_last_modified = empty($_SERVER['HTTP_IF_MODIFIED_SINCE']) ? '' : trim($_SERVER['HTTP_IF_MODIFIED_SINCE']);
    // If string is empty, return 0. If not, attempt to parse into a timestamp
    $client_modified_timestamp = $client_last_modified ? strtotime($client_last_modified) : 0;
 
    // Make a timestamp for our most recent modification...
    $wp_modified_timestamp = strtotime($wp_last_modified);
 
    if ( ($client_last_modified && $client_etag) ?
         (($client_modified_timestamp >= $wp_modified_timestamp) && ($client_etag == $wp_etag)) :
         (($client_modified_timestamp >= $wp_modified_timestamp) || ($client_etag == $wp_etag)) ) {
      status_header( 304 );
      exit;
    }
  }
 
  do_action_ref_array('send_headers', array(&$this));
}

Still, I was able to come up with a solution although it is so very hackish.  My solution was to hook the "template_redirect" action on line 7 of "wp-includes/template-loader.php" (see code from that file above.) Though it seems to works thus far, my solution just feels wrong for the following reasons:

  1. It ignores the fact that WordPress continues to think that my web service URL is the home page,
  2. It first lets "$wp->send_headers()" set the content type before it overrides it,
  3. It uses an "exit" rather than a return to keep WordPress from serving up the home page template, and
  4. It doesn’t use the routing mechanism apparent built into WordPress (see "null" on line 30 of "wp-content/plugins/restful-services/restful-web-services.php" below, I assume it should have been the URL of the .php file I plan to execute but WordPress doesn’t see to use what I put there.)

The function "restful_web_services_exec_service()" is what is called to execute the appropriate web service:

wp-content/plugins/restful-services/restful-web-services.php:

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/*
Plugin Name: RESTful Web Services
Plugin URI: http://mikeschinkel.com/wordpress/restful-web-services/
Description: This plugin enables REST-based API web services for WordPress.
Author: Mike Schinkel
Version: 0.1
Author URI: http://mikeschinkel.com/
*/
 
define('RESTFUL_WEB_SERVICES_DIR', dirname(__FILE__));
define('RESTFUL_WEB_SERVICES_URL_PATTERN','services(/?.*)?');
$abspath = trim(str_replace('\\','/',ABSPATH),'/');
$rest_services_dir = str_replace('\\','/',RESTFUL_WEB_SERVICES_DIR);
$rest_services_path = trim(str_replace($abspath,'',$rest_services_dir),'/');
define('RESTFUL_WEB_SERVICES_PATH', $rest_services_path);
 
// NOTE, See: http://codex.wordpress.org/Custom_Queries#Permalinks_for_Custom_Archives
add_action('init', 'restful_web_services_flush_rewrite_rules');
add_filter('generate_rewrite_rules', 'restful_web_services_add_rewrite_rules');
add_action('template_redirect', 'restful_web_services_exec_service');
 
add_action('init', 'restful_web_services_flush_rewrite_rules');
function restful_web_services_flush_rewrite_rules() {
 global $wp_rewrite;
 $wp_rewrite->flush_rules();
}
 
add_filter('generate_rewrite_rules', 'restful_web_services_add_rewrite_rules');
function restful_web_services_add_rewrite_rules( $wp_rewrite ) {
  $new_rules = array(
    RESTFUL_WEB_SERVICES_URL_PATTERN => null,
  );
  $wp_rewrite->rules = $new_rules + $wp_rewrite->rules;
}
 
function restful_web_services_exec_service() {
  global $wp;
  if ($wp->matched_rule==RESTFUL_WEB_SERVICES_URL_PATTERN) {
    if ($wp->request == 'services') {
      header('Content-Type: text/plain');
      print 'TODO: Generate a list of RESTful Web Services here for this WordPress Blog.';
    } else {
      list($dummy,$service_name) = explode('/',$wp->request);
      if (file_exists($service_php = (RESTFUL_WEB_SERVICES_DIR . '/services/' . $service_name . '.php'))) {
        include_once $service_php;
      } else {
        header('Content-Type: text/plain');
        status_header(404);
        print '404 - Service not found.';
      }
    }
    exit;
  }
}

You’ll note that my function "restful_web_services_exec_service()" is very bare-bones at the moment serving only a plain text message "TODO:" for the path http://example.com/services, and assuming that any path http://example.com/services/{service} will execute a same-named .php file in the services subdirectory, i.e. for http://example.com/services/latest-post it will look for "wp-content/plugins/restful-web-services/services/lastest-post.php" and then delegate all the work to that .php file.

wp-content/plugins/restful-services/services/latest-vidclip.php:

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/*
Filename: latest-post.php
Service Name: Latest Post
*/
global $wp_query;
$post = $wp_query->post;
$file = get_attached_file($post->ID);
if (empty($file)) {
  list($file)= get_enclosed($post->ID);
}
$charset = get_option('blog_charset');
header('Content-Type: text/xml; charset=' . get_option('blog_charset'), true);
$link = get_permalink($post->ID);
$html = &lt; &lt;<post></post><post id="{$post-&gt;ID}">      <video>$file</video>   <link />$link  </post>  POST; print $html;

Here is an example output returned by calling http://example.com/services/latest-post:

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&lt; ?xml version=&quot;1.0&quot; encoding=&quot;UTF-8&quot;?&gt; 
<post id="2">      <video>http://videos example.org/video1.flv</video>   <link />http://example.org/sample-post-1/  </post>

While bare-bones, that will meet my needs for the moment since I really only have the need for one service that responds to the HTTP GET verb. However, I can see where I might end up fleshing this out and create lots of helper functions that would streamline the creation of web services for RESTful access to the entirety of the WordPress database. If I do so I’ll be happy to donate this plugin to the community.  In the mean time if you’d like to use this for your own use feel free but caveat emptor. However, if you’d like to use this code to create a plugin to contribute to the community, please contact me for collaboration.  Of course if you’d like to retain me to fully flesh it out for you, I’m always open to that too! :-)

Finally, if anyone who knows the WordPress API better than I do can tell me where I erred in my analysis, and I really hope I did, please let me know so I can architect this thing better. On the other hand, if I was spot-on in my analysis maybe this will help the WordPress team understand what needs to be done so they can empower WordPress to generate any arbitrary content type without having to resort to hacks or bypassing the WordPress index.php startup code. 

THE MOST AWESOME Print Dialog on the Web, EVER!

THE MOST AWESOME Print Dialog on the Web EVER

Some one sent me a link to this page about REST and when I went to print it, up popped THE MOST AWESOME Print Dialog I’ve EVER seen on the web! I so hope this guy starts a trend…

P.S. Unfortunately it doesn’t work for me to link directly to it, or I would.


Clarifying my Microsoft Developer Division Rant, Redux

I made two posts recently discussing Microsoft’s Developer Division. Although I had strong feelings about the issues, my thoughts were still too unclear to be succinct. But writing clarifies thought and I had already waited too long to post so a-posting I went.

Reading the comments it became clear I had muddled several issues:

  1. How Open-Source competition for languages and web frameworks are exploiting Microsoft’s obsolete process and release cycle
  2. How Microsoft is not addressing the needs of the “Occupational Programmer
  3. My own personal frustrations as an occupational programmer with Microsoft’s obsolete process and release cycle

Since few if any likely to care about my personal frustrations if they are not framed in broader need, I won’t belabor point #3 but I will address points #1 and #2 as seperate issues in my next posts.

UPDATE - (2007-Jan-01): Both of those posts are now live:

What is a RESTafarian?

A RESTifarian is a zealous proponent of the REST software architectural style as defined by Roy T. Fielding in Chapter 5 of his PhD. dissertation at UCIrvine. You can find RESTifarians in the wild on the REST-discuss mailing list. But be careful, RESTifarians can be extremely meticulous when discussing the finer points of REST, as I learned recently while participating on the list. :)

The Roadkill of the Web 2.0 Era!


Lately I’ve become be very interested in Web 2.0 with particular interest in Mashup development. Microformats, REST-based web services using RSS and/or Atom that empower mashup development, and Building APIs for the web. The concept that the web can finally start evolving into a programmable set of services and data instead of just electronic brochures and self-service applications really energizes me!


On the other hand, even though I am incredibly excited about this trend, I’m frustrated by how few companies are actually doing it!  Very few business people have thus far gotten that “Aha!” moment where they realize what so many technologists instinctively understand; the business benefits of opening up data and systems as web services on the Internet can be vast!


Even with such highly successful companies as Google and Yahoo freely sharing so much of their data via REST-based web services, and Amazon driving significant revenue1 from it’s pennies-per-transaction SOAP and REST-based web services, most business people I speak to either just don’t get it! Or worse, they are either scared to death of it or convinced it makes absolutely no sense!


Well all I can say is that old saw will definitely be true: “What you don’t know can hurt you!” The late majority to this game (and even some of the early majority) that continue not to get it, avoid it in fear, or just plain out deny it are going to become the Roadkill of the Web 2.0 Era





1 Significant for such an early stage