The most important change is the explosion in the use of Web based applications, and particularly the use of the Web for business critical applications which are often referred to as e-Commerce.

These applications have the capacity to inflict massive damage on an organisation if untested applications get deployed - for example Argos inadvertently sold several £300 TV sets for £3 each from its Website. Web applications need both thorough testing, and re-testing whenever they or their environment changes.

Add to this the need to re-test on all the platforms on which they will be used, and we see that the balance between manual and automated testing that existed in conventional development has sifted decisively towards automated testing for Web applications.

Testing Web applications is technically complex, with many different technologies able to co-exist within a single Web page, and including dynamic multi-media content. With the Web, it is no longer possible to separate functional and performance testing, because Web servers have a habit of denying service if they, or the network, becomes saturated.

Web applications must be able to handle these denials cleanly and safely, and these abilities need to be tested in the presence of a background load. Conversely load tests need to do limited functional checking to differentiate between meaningful responses and error messages.

Web application testing also extends into areas that were not typically thought of as testing responsibilities, such as the security of servers and data.

These factors, along with the anticipated explosion in the volume of e-Commerce in the next few years, present the tool suppliers with a massive challenge and a matching opportunity.

Other aspects of the software testing tool scene have also progressed. Features that were significant product differentiators a couple of years ago are now commonplace. We have seen a very welcome rise in the level of usability of the leading testing tools.

"Wizards" now pop up everywhere in the automated testing world! There is less shelfware being produced. More types of applications, such as ERP packages, can be handled. The leading tools now have significant support for test planning and management.

There is however still some way to go here as, for example, little support exists for version management or for linking to versions of the software under test.

There has been some shake out in the ranks of suppliers, and several more vendors lost through take-overs. Some vendors have moved into niche markets - usually ones where specialist consultancy is also required.

The leading vendors have been through the phase of trying to match their competitors’ list of features and are now seeking to differentiate themselves by their overall positioning. Some of them are expanding into integrated development environments, system management tools, or diagnostic aids.

We expect the pace of change to be maintained and to see more exciting developments over the next few years.

Graham Titterington, OVUM Ltd