XML marks the spot for next Internet phase

Many vendors and analysts now believe the ‘Net is about to experience its biggest growth spurt yet – eXtensible Markup Language (XML) is the reason.

Remember when the net was just a catalogue of static pages? It was a big day for the medium when companies actually started to trade over the web, finally making it commercially viable. Eventually, firms began to advertise, create online communities and hold auctions over the massive public network – and the internet came of age.

Many vendors and analysts now believe the net is about to experience its biggest growth spurt yet. Services are emerging that will touch upon the lives of every connected user, and eXtensible Markup Language (XML) is at their core.

So rapid has been the rise of XML that Microsoft UK managing director Neil Holloway recently said all of Microsoft’s strategies now centre around it. So what’s the big deal about XML?

Basically, XML is a programming language for describing the elements in a structured electronic document – whether words, graphics, numbers, video, or even voice data – so that it can be shared across different companies, industries, business partners and customers. It uses software building blocks that can be accessed via the internet and assembled into online applications.

Being ‘extensible’ means developers can create thousands of XML brands to accomplish specific functions. For example, there is Wireless Markup Language (WML) for exchanging data with handheld devices, VoiceXML for managing voice data, and industry-specific encoding such as Chemical Markup Language (CML), or HRXML for human resources.

What this ultimately means for the web user is seamless access to sites and data from any web-enabled device, as tiny XML applications spring into action, automatically preparing data for them.

Vendors and technology industry analysts are certainly cheering XML along. However, businesses have yet to be totally convinced, saying that the platform is still premature, and sufficient standards for XML are lacking. It also has the potential to bloat file sizes, which means data will take longer to move around.

Nevertheless, influential standards body the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has approved XML Schema (a key enterprise version of XML) as ‘stable’ for industry adoption.

More tools and server support services are emerging for XML Schema and other variants. In February, Microsoft released its BizTalk Server 2000 application for linking complex business processes. IBM is another vendor that is planning to put XML support into most of its applications.

It looks as if XML will indeed be the substance that forms the building blocks of the next stage of the internet’s commercial development, just as the HTML language provided the means to present web pages to internet users.

The web is about to evolve again, so get ready.

Arif Mohamed is news editor of IT Week.