Analyst group Meta has tipped IBM as the strongest player in the "brave new world" of web services.
Meta said that IBM had the clearest business vision, the simplest IT vision, the deepest research resources and the most experience of complex systems among the main players. It added that Microsoft is IBM's closest rival.
Analysts speaking at Meta's 14th annual forum in Barcelona indicated that rival vendors regard IBM as their most significant competitor, and that IBM is in "the best shape it has been in during the past 20 years".
Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett Packard (HP) are also "market visionaries", although the analysts suggested that the latter two have more weaknesses than strengths.
"Web services are going to be critical to IT infrastructures for the next 20 years," Val Sribar, Meta's vice president of executive directions, told delegates.
The analyst sees an "extended web" as a way of allowing businesses to develop IT operations that allow them to become more agile, sensing trends and responding to them quickly.
Microsoft's ability to drive commoditisation and capture the "hearts and minds of SME developers" would help it, but Sriber warned that the software giant would be hit by its past monopolistic practices and "immaturity in delivering robust solutions to highly complex and critical requirements".
Meta added that Microsoft had the strongest vision of the revolutionary impact of XML.
The analyst described BEA and Oracle as "market influencers" with only a minor role in the future of web services infrastructure.
And it predicted that SAP will sit across the portfolios of other vendors, rather than being seen as an infrastructure player in its own right.
The analysts were sceptical of Sun's offerings. The vendor had been right in identifying that the network is the computer, but had done little right since.
Although it has a strong brand in Java, Sun suffered from a reputation of proprietary, high-margin hardware in an increasingly open, low-margin software world.
Sribar insisted that Sun had executed poorly in its software and web services strategy "which we don't see changing".
Luis Leamus, Meta's senior vice president of international server infrastructure strategies, added: "Sun had the gold in its hands but couldn't make it work. So forgive us if we're a bit sceptical."
HP was praised for its strong infrastructure management focus, but the analyst warned that its lack of middleware products, legacy hardware and cost structures will count against it.
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