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XML spells big changes in the Internet, experts say

XML spells big changes in the Internet, experts say
Tuesday, May 9, 2000
Leslie J. Nicholson
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWS SERVICE


The technology community has a warning for Internet users: We could be facing the end of the Web as we know it.
On the horizon, some say, is a transformed World Wide Web that will make business-to-business electronic commerce easier and improve the browsing experience for the rest of us.
All of this thanks to a new Internet vocabulary called XML, or Extensible Markup Language.
“XML is a way of capturing information that the whole world is getting excited about,” said Lisa Bos, director of content management systems for Reed Technology & Information Services Inc., a Horsham provider of electronic-publishing products and services.
Stephen J. Andriole, chief technology officer of Safeguard Scientifics Inc., the Wayne technology holding company, calls XML a potential “silver bullet.” Microsoft Corp. President Steve Ballmer has called it the “secret sauce” of the Internet.

Invisible difference

The object of all this adulation is, to most of us, invisible.
XML, and its more familiar cousin, HTML, are markup languages, sets of codes that instruct a computer how to handle a text file. These instructions come in the form of “tags” written between “less than” and “greater than” symbols.
HTML, or Hypertext Markup Language, tells a Web browser how information should be displayed on a computer screen or how it should be formatted for printing. It also governs the links between Web sites.
XML goes a step beyond HTML. It allows users to create tags that provide background information about the text — not just how a word looks, but what it represents.
For example, an HTML document may have tags instructing a Web browser to display the words “A Tale of Two Cities” in italics.
However, had that document been marked up in XML, the code writer could have incorporated a descriptive tag that told future users that “A Tale of Two Cities” was a book title, not simply five words that should be displayed in italics.
“XML is to the Web of today much what the Web of today was to e-mail. In other words, it’s quite a jump. XML will bring structure to the Web,” John Patrick, vice president for Internet technology at IBM Corp., told delegates at an Internet conference early this year.

Platform-free

XML works across software platforms, so by most accounts the business-to-business implications are vast, especially for companies that have a lot of data coming in from numerous partners and numerous software programs.
Assume, for instance, that a widget maker sends a document over the Internet to an automaker, and the document contains the number 1223. Even if the automaker downloads the information into an incompatible software program, if both computers use XML and an agreed-upon set of tags, the automaker’s computer will know whether 1223 is a parts number, an invoice number, part of a street address or a date, because the underlying tag will specify the meaning.
The automaker could later comb through its files using XML and create an index of invoice numbers, or any other category of tagged data. Therein lies a key difference between XML and HTML. XML is meant to help machines share, store and reuse data. HTML is meant to help humans read data.
“It becomes a self-describing piece of information,” said Donald A. DePalma, vice president for corporate strategy at Idiom Inc., a Web globalization company in Cambridge, Mass.
“If you have a tool that can understand XML at each end, it can deconstruct the tag, read the information and do something with it,” DePalma said.
DePalma was one of 2,200 people who went to Philadelphia in December for XML ’99, a weeklong conference sponsored by the Graphic Communications Association of Alexandria, Va.

Growing interest

If attendance at XML ’99 is any indication, interest in the markup language is booming. Norman W. Scharpf, president of the association, said attendance increased by 60 percent from the year before.
“You can buy books on XML at the corner drugstore now,” he said. “You couldn’t do that before.”
XML is a subset of a more complex language, Standard Generalized Markup Language, or SGML, which has been around since 1986. XML was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium as a way of simplifying SGML for use on the
Web.
Since its rollout in 1996, numerous working groups have formed to develop XML standards to exchange data within their industries. Pennsylvania-based Bentley Systems Inc., for example, is leading the development of AECXML, a set of standards for the architectural, engineering and construction industry.
Chief Executive Keith Bentley said the standards would allow people who are working together on a building project to more easily track vital information, such as delivery dates, that comes from numerous sources, and thereby reduce delays and mishaps.
“The process today is pretty inefficient,” he said. “To answer one question, you may have to look at five different programs.”

Y2K answer

Some say that if XML had been around decades ago, Y2K problems would have been easier to fix. Rather than having to search databases line by line to isolate the date codes, which are not always apparent, programmers could have searched for the appropriate tags.
“With Year 2000, you couldn’t identify data because people called it a thousand things,” said Daryn Walters, vice president for marketing of XMLSolutions Corp., in McLean, Va.
Walters said XML’s appeal lies in its simplicity and its potential to reduce the cost of electronic commerce. His company sells a program called XEDI that is designed to help small and midsize firms use XML to conduct transactions with major companies.

Consumer benefits

Experts say XML’s potential consumer benefits include smarter search engines and a faster response from Web servers. Sending more intelligent text to the desktop reduces the need to request information from the server, said Bos of Reed Technology.
Central to XML is XSL, or Extensible Stylesheet Language. A stylesheet is programming that determines how a browser presents data to the reader. Stylesheets can be built, using XSL, that allow XML documents to be viewed in HTML, rich text format, or Microsoft Word, for example. The same piece of text can be presented in several formats by applying the right stylesheet.
DePalma said that using XML and XSL makes it possible for Web pages to automatically adjust content based on whether a hand-held device and a desktop are being used, or a slow dial-up connection vs. a cable modem.
“The text becomes smart enough to know how to handle itself,” he said.
Major software companies, including Sun Microsystems, Microsoft and Adobe, have begun incorporating XML into their products, said Dianne Kennedy, chief technical consultant for the International Digital Enterprise Alliance, an affiliate of the Graphic Communication Association.
XML will become ubiquitous, Kennedy said.
“It will be part of every word processing and database publishing tool. It will be everywhere, and it will be the way that humans communicate with machines and machines communicate with each other.”
For the average person, said Kennedy, “it will be just like electricity.”
For more information, see the World Wide Web Consortium Web site: http://www.w3.org/XML/Activity.html.

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