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This is now a web services world, which, on the face of it, seems like an odd thing to say — after all, you may be able to go about much of your life today just as you did a decade ago without giving a moment's thought to something called "web services." However, even though you may not notice the fact, your everyday life is surrounded by web services.

As more aspects of our lives move to the Internet — banking, shopping, paying our taxes, collaborating at work, our social lives — people naturally want to be able to combine two or more of them into a new creation. It's the technological equivalent of the musical mash-up that's all the rage these days — a combination of two elements to create a new one that reflects parts of both.

An early example of this phenomenon was an Internet application that combined Google Maps with craigslist apartment listings to create a map identifying the location of every available apartment. All the application did was combine (mash up) two basic services, but from that union came an extremely useful result — a guide to apartments in a particular area, making the process of selecting some to view and getting driving directions to them much more efficient.

The huge growth of mobile computing — the brave new world of smartphones and tablets — has worked to fuel the growth of APIs as well as mash-up applications. The "app culture" of mobile computing is a natural place to combine services, especially those tied to location.

The next great frontier for web services is the so-called "Internet of Things," a term that refers to computing devices used not by humans, but by each other — interacting to complete useful tasks (smart electric meters that communicate with power company billing systems, for example).

Soon, however, you'll be surrounded by all manner of devices that constantly interact with cloud-based applications. How big will the Internet of Things become? One senior Cisco executive predicts that 1 trillion devices will soon be interacting over the Internet.

As more proof (if more proof were needed) that today's world is a web services world, companies, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations are feverishly making their resources available as online services accessible via APIs. Engineers are combining online web services to create new applications that combine individual services and provide unique and useful capabilities.

This web services revolution makes possible a number of interesting benefits:

  • Innovation: Just as musical mash-ups let people combine musical resources into new creations, so, too, do web services foster innovation. Though you might not be able to see the value in a combination of, say, vehicle gas mileage ratings, local gas prices, and state park reviews, someone else may conclude that an application allowing someone to enter the make and model of her automobile to find out which parks she can visit for less than $25 in gas costs would be just the ticket — and a whole lot of people may agree.

  • Niche market support: In a non-web-services world, the only people who can develop applications are those working for organizations. Only they have access to the computing resources or data — so the only applications that are developed are ones that the company deems useful.

    However, once those resources and data are made available via web services, anyone can create an application, which allows the development of applications targeted at niche markets. For example, someone can combine Google Maps with a municipal bus schedule in a mobile app to allow users to see when and where the next bus will be available nearby.

  • New sources of revenue: Companies can provide a web services interface into their business transaction systems and allow outside entities to sell their goods. For example, the large retailer Sears has made it possible for mobile app developers and bloggers to sell Sears goods via a Sears web service.

  • These developers and bloggers reach audiences that Sears may not be able to reach — but Sears can prosper without having to be involved.

  • As another example, Netflix has made its web services interface to its video offerings available, and many device and game manufacturers have used the interface to incorporate Netflix into their products. Netflix can gain new revenues every time someone buys a Wii or an Xbox and decides that it would be cool to use his new toy to access online movies and television.

These examples should give you an understanding of why many people regard the rise of web services as a true technology revolution.

This revolution is nowhere near the end, either. Mobile computing is still growing extremely rapidly, and it's just getting going in emerging economies. The journey of the Internet of Things has barely begun. But recognize just how important web services are to you — even if you're unaware of their presence.

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