Although the signal-to-noise ratio surrounding most emerging technologies is typically quite low, the potential of Extensible Markup Language (XML) seems to be off the chart. What began as, and still is, a simple tagging language, has emerged as a powerful electronic-business enabler - a mechanism for data interchange that is being infused into all levels of corporate infrastructures.
In the past month alone, many leading vendors, such as Oracle, IBM and Microsoft, have expanded XML support in their development tools, databases, and application-integration infrastructures, generating a great deal of exposure and anticipation for the potential business benefits of the standard.
However, like most standards, XML is experiencing growing pains, many of which stem from the inevitable vendor tug-of-war that follows the emergence of almost any truly useful technology. For XML, the issues go beyond how the standard itself will evolve. Because XML on its own merely defines data, which means it must be properly formatted to provide any real-world benefit, questions have surfaced about how and where the technology should be implemented, and who - vendors, vertical industries, or individual companies - should dictate that decision.
`XML will certainly be applied where structured information needs to be exchanged between heterogeneous systems or organisations for whom a very tightly controlled standard won't work,' says Phil Costa, a senior industry analyst at the Giga Information Group. `One of the problems with XML, though, is that it's a low-level technology and can be applied to any number of problems, so people are still trying to figure out where it can be useful.'
As these gaps are filled in the near future by products, services, and standards, more companies will press ahead, says Kent Davidson, co-founder and vice president of engineering at Receipts.com, a digital transaction verification service in California.
`Many companies have already based their business on XML,' Davidson says. `But XML is currently lacking key technologies such as security. I think that by the first quarter of next year, when businesses have a slew of products that use XML and fill these gaps, it will take hold as the Internet standard for business-to-business commerce on the Web.'
Open to interpretation. Another problem posed by the simplicity of XML is that the standard was designed to be highly extensible. That, combined with user confusion over how and where it should be implemented, has left the standard open to a variety of interpretations that some worry could splinter it.
One of the most glaring examples of potential XML appropriation is Microsoft's BizTalk program, which provides a framework for developing XML schemas that are an integral part of any XML implementation. Without such a framework, says James Utzschneider, director of business frameworks at Microsoft's business solutions group, XML's potential may never be realised.
`XML by itself is not a solution - it's a key ingredient to enable a richer type of solution,' Utzschneider says. `What you need is an architecture where you can take XML data and integrate it with various applications - and that's what we're offering with BizTalk.'
So although Microsoft admits it hopes to provide the framework for those XML-based solutions, the company downplays the role BizTalk may take in dictating how XML will be deployed - and sidesteps the insinuation that the standard is ripe for the splitting.
`Companies are going to use data formatted the way they want in integrating and working with suppliers,' Utzschneider says. `That's the way it's worked for 20 years, and it's not that big a deal.'
A case in point is Chicago-based W.W. Grainger, which recently launched FindMRO.com, a business-to-business site that will allow companies to access 12,000 different suppliers for maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) needs. FindMRO.com will use XML as the primary vehicle to exchange information via its Internet channel, which company officials say allows it freedom and flexibility. That flexibility, however, will not extend to Grainger's suppliers.
`There is a Grainger XML standard that we've developed, and we say to our suppliers, 'Here is our standard,'' says Joe McCluskey, director of technology development at Grainger.
If the suppliers want to work with Grainger, they must use the Grainger-developed version of XML, McCluskey explains. That approach, often referred to as the `verticalisation of XML', may be one of the more likely scenarios to emerge as the XML drama plays out.
Dror Liwer, chief technology officer at Context Integration, a New York-based Web systems integration company that is involved in a number of digital exchange projects, says that XML is clearly the language of choice for digital exchanges between companies within their respective industries, but the overarching question of who will define the XML standards, or vocabularies, remains, and XML's greatest strength - its simplicity - may also be its weak point.
`XML is not there yet from a pure EDI [electronic data interchange] perspective . . . and that's because of the looseness of the language,' Liwer says. `A business partner may be complying with your standards, but the content [inside the tags] may not be in the right format.' Because of this problem, Context has written parsers that let content in XML documents be validated.
XML extension or restriction? As evidence of the `verticalisation' movement, Oracle just weeks ago inked a deal with auto industry titan Ford that will see the two companies develop an online exchange - with XML at its core - for Ford's supply-chain partners.
Such an initiative, according to Jeremy Burton, vice president of server marketing at Oracle, will put Ford in a position to dictate how its business partners make use of XML.
`If [Ford's] suppliers say, 'No, we're not going to be able to exchange [XML] documents based on their format,' guess what - they're not going to do business with Ford,' Burton says.
What that means for vendors, Burton adds, is that rather than trying to influence the standards bodies directly, companies such as Oracle should be concentrating on working with industry leaders to develop specific XML document formats to fit that industry's needs. `The race is on [between technology companies] to get a complete XML solution stack in place and form those strategic partnerships with big vendors in each industry that help you standardise the doc formats,' Burton explains. `Once you've got that, you are in a good position to start driving the standard because you've got the big players.'
Jason Maynard, chief technology officer at Open Avenue, an open-source project host in California, agrees, noting that the combination of industry leaders and technology innovators driving the standard forward could be just what is needed for XML to realise its potential.
`It's the best model, because it's going to go much quicker that way, and you're not going to have the wrong people doing the job,' Maynard says. `As long as there are a just a few variations, rather than many, and the vendors pushing the standard aren't too self-serving, users can come out OK.'
Transformation versus definition. Of course, seeing Oracle and Microsoft cosying up to a still-nascent standard may seem to many like having wolves in the manger. But Maynard points out that their efforts may ultimately be beneficial for expediting the development and adoption of XML, and in turn simplify data interchange between business partners.
One company that disagrees with Oracle and Microsoft and doesn't want to get involved in discussions over how XML documents should be formatted is IBM.
Big Blue has been one of the most vocal critics of Microsoft's BizTalk strategy and, according to Simon Phipps, IBM's chief XML and Java evangelist in England, the idea of vendors trying to brand a standard is a little disconcerting.
`The strategy to embrace, extend, and extinguish has not necessarily gone away,' Phipps says.
What Phipps sees as XML's greatest asset is not its extensibility - the feature that has been most widely leveraged to date - but its openness to transformation, which will allow different flavours of XML to talk to one another through adapters inside applications. So rather than vertically targeted document formats or vendor-specific implementations, transformation will make XML an integral component of business-to-business integration and interchange going forward, Phipps says.
`You don't need to fear diversity in tagging vocabularies. They are inevitable, because businesses are so diverse,' Phipps explains. `But if you're going to live with differences, you're going to need strong transformation technologies. That's why the key to XML is not representation, but rather transformation.'
So, whether XML is built upon through transformation or common representations, one thing about XML does seem clear: unlike many flash-in-the-pan technologies before it, XML may finally deliver on its promise of seamless data interchange.
`It's becoming pretty clear that XML is going to be a widely deployed technology,' Costa says. `To a certain extent, it's going to be more under-the-covers than it is today, but at least for the next few years, it's going to be apparent to people.'
Microsoft's Utzschneider agrees, comparing XML to other open standards that in recent years have had a significant impact on the burgeoning electronic-business phenomenon.
`It's not a question of whether or not you're going to need XML - you're going to choose to use XML in the same way companies five years ago chose to use HTML and HTTP,' Utzschneider says. `Companies weren't dragged kicking and screaming to use browsers. They chose to use browsers.'
Receipt.com puts XML to work
Although many companies are taking a wait-and-see approach to XML, those that are moving forward despite the standards struggles are finding ways to bridge its gaps. Receipt.com, an online provider of digital receipts for electronic commerce, is doing its share to move XML forward by addressing XML transaction validation. Its digital receipt technology allows companies, and will soon allow consumers, to secure XML-based e-commerce transactions with a `stamp' that can prove to a third party that the transaction took place.
For Receipt.com to develop its service despite XML's immaturity, the company worked with two XML standards groups, the IETF's Internet Open Trading Protocol group and a World Wide Web Consortium working group, and two industry-specific groups, CommerceNet and the Financial Services Technology Consortium. It also used the Extensible Style Language for flexibility and Sun Microsystems' XML library to get up and running quickly, says Kent Davidson, co-founder and vice president of engineering at Receipt.com in California.
`A lot of the companies we're partnered with are already using XML, and they are developing a set of DTDs [Document Type Definitions] for the aspects of their business that relate to basic transactions, such as procurement and payments,' Davidson says. `This allows us to take that transaction and wrap it with our XML technology to 'stamp' it, showing that the transaction has not been altered.'
Receipt.com's technology allows the service to work independently of the XML DTD used. So even though companies might support competing standards of XML, Receipt.com can work with them.
`I think the reality of the market is that a slew of competing standards will exist to start out, but in the end, there's always going to be a Coke and a Pepsi - and with XML, hopefully they'll interoperate,' Davidson says.