Ten years after founding software firm BEA Systems in Silicon Valley, Hong Kong-born Alfred Chuang is in the fight of his life to help steer the business information technology sector to greater innovation and choice against market consolidation led by a few large players. This high-stakes battle is being fought in the new field of service-oriented architecture (SOA), which should integrate and make more productive use of diverse services and applications in enterprises. Mr Chuang, chairman and chief executive at BEA, claimed that his company led the nascent market for SOA ahead of rivals Oracle, IBM and Microsoft as its technology worked with all industry platforms - Java, .NET, open source and legacy mainframe computing environments. 'SOA is the most powerful movement in enterprise technology today. The days of business silos and software smokestacks are coming to an end,' he said. BEA defines SOA as an approach to application development that breaks down business software programs into 'services' - specific pieces of functionality - which can be combined and re-used to accelerate service response times to a company's customers, partners and employees. Research firm International Data Corp identified the top four sectors adopting SOA as financial services, government, health care and retail. But Mr Chuang said the impetus to adopting SOA might soon be more pronounced in the telecommunications industry, where service providers demanded infrastructure systems that accelerated the launch of services and boosted average revenue per user. 'No longer will managers have to cobble together scraps of information through dozens of phone calls, requests from corporate databases and hours of spreadsheet work. For the first time, they will be able to tap into a network of services that delivers what they need when they need it, all based on a common software infrastructure for applications and services that masks the complexity of underlying technologies,' he said. At its annual global forum BEAWorld in Santa Clara, BEA unveiled to its thousands of applications developer customers a new batch of products, partners and support programmes covering its AquaLogic, WebLogic and Tuxedo middleware lines that would help them move their SOA projects from pilot phase to production. BEA's latest offering includes WebLogic Real-Time edition, a new version of the company's flagship middleware that enables users to update applications while they run live on the network. 'This is like changing the engine of a race car while the car is running,' said Mr Chuang, adding that this represented continuing innovation from BEA amid efforts by larger players to consolidate the enterprise software market. Oracle, which has acquired a string of applications software rivals such as PeopleSoft and Siebel Systems, has moved to compete in the US$7billion middleware market with its Fusion Architecture. Oracle president Charles Phillips unveiled two weeks ago support for IBM's WebSphere middleware, claiming there was no demand from its customers to support BEA's WebLogic. He also said Oracle's middleware business had the potential to grow faster than its core database business. That kind of competition could make business tougher for BEA. The firm, which was the software industry's fast-rising star in the late 1990s, has seen annual revenues stall at about US$1billion over the past three years as large companies limited their infrastructure software spending after the dotcom bubble burst. But a defiant Mr Chuang saw industry consolidation curtailing further innovation, claiming that technological breakthroughs such as the World Wide Web were realised just a decade ago. 'We're not in a point where we should consolidate our industry to three companies. I don't live in that world,' Mr Chuang said. BEA's growing number of SOA deployments worldwide provided it with a much-needed edge. A report from research firm Gartner said: 'SOA will shift the focus from tools and packaged suites to modular offerings from multiple vendors.' About 80 per cent of all enterprise development projects worldwide are forecast to be on SOA by 2008. Another edge for BEA is that the mainland, where it has 'domestic software company status', is its fastest-growing market with large customers in the government, telecommunications and banking sectors. BEA has 110 research and development staff in Beijing. Mr Chuang said: 'I don't think innovation is done. For BEA, I think the next 10 years will be more interesting than the past 10.'