[USAToday] Kevin Maney tries to ease XML fears

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From: Adam Rifkin (Adam@KnowNow.Com)
Date: Wed Sep 13 2000 - 18:57:50 PDT


Man has XML gone through a transformation in the media. Three years ago
people used to write articles like this for IEEE Computing:

       http://www.cs.caltech.edu/~adam/papers/xml/x-marks-the-spot.html

Or this one in the World Wide Web Journal:

       http://www.cs.caltech.edu/~adam/papers/xml/xml-for-archiving.html

Nowadays you find articles on XML like the one below which was in today's
USA Today business section:

       http://www.usatoday.com/money/columns/maney.htm

Go ahead, I *dare* you to mention Bob Dole taking viagra to make himself
more "extensible", a comparison of 'N Sync to eczema, and (ahem) "fetadata"
in an article about XML...

FYI: XML can do things that HTML can't
But it's OK
By Kevin Maney, USA TODAY

You meet someone at a party. You ask what she does. She says she writes
software. She leans close and whispers, "I'm into the hottest thing on the
Web XML."

You immediately think one or more of the following:

XML? Is that a sports league dreamed up by Vince McMahon?

Oh, no, that's got to be a new boy band like 'N Sync, and I'm going to
embarrass myself with my kids by taking six months to figure out you're
supposed to pronounce the whole thing instead of calling them "N, S, Y, N,
C." Then again, what boy band would want to be called a name that would be
pronounced almost like "eczema"?

Whatever it is, can I get in on the IPO?

Outside of the computer and Internet industries, XML is something of a
stranger. Yet it's the foundation of what is supposed to be the Internet's
next chapter. Microsoft is banking its future on XML it's at the center
of Microsoft's dot-Net strategy. And XML is absolutely necessary "to get
the Internet to truly become an ingredient in everything that we do," says
Mike Campbell, a senior vice president at software giant SAP.

XML is a set of programming standards. The Web today is based on HTML,
which stands for hypertext mark-up language. Part of XML's image problem is
what it stands for: extensible mark-up language. Extensible isn't exactly
one of your everyday words. My dictionary pegs the meaning as "capable of
being extended or protruded." How would you use that in conversation? "Now
that he takes Viagra, Bob Dole is more extensible." No?

But because XML is important, I asked a bunch of tech industry types to
help explain it and explain why it's important. For starters, they tell me,
HTML is a language used to create the look of a Web page. It's like paint
on a canvas. But like paint, HTML doesn't know anything about the stuff on
the page. It doesn't know that one thing is a boat, another is a tree and
so on.
So if you want to use that boat on another Web page, there's no simple way
to say, "Put boat here." HTML wouldn't have a clue what you're talking about.

XML is a way to stick little software-coded labels on stuff. That way, all
Web sites and computer devices everywhere could know that a boat is a boat.
"It's what computer scientists call 'metadata' that is, data about the
data," says Bill Wulf of the National Academy of Engineering.

Just make sure you don't confuse that with fetadata, which literally means
"smelly cheese about the data."

Now, why would labels be so important? Right now, information on Web pages
and in computer software and databases can't easily be exchanged among each
other. To do that, you'd have to write special tools that could translate
the information from one source to the other. For instance, if you go to
Expedia to make airline reservations, the dates and times in Expedia can't
be read and used by your calendar in Outlook or vice versa, even though
Expedia and Outlook are both from Microsoft.

If XML were used in both Expedia and Outlook, they might be able to do neat
things together. Outlook could see flights you were considering and warn
you which ones conflict with other appointments. Once you make a purchase,
Expedia could dump the flight times right into your calendar.

 From there, XML gets deeper and more interesting. Companies using
different computer systems and software want to be able to exchange
information about parts, supplies and prices so they can do e-commerce.
Without XML, "you would have to create an interface with the databases,"
says Oded Vardi of Israeli Internet company R U Sure. "This is a big burden
to program, operate and maintain."

XML is supposed to work across any device, so companies won't have to
create new versions of their Web offerings every time something like a
newfangled wireless pince-nez computer hits the market.

If a standard version of XML were adopted across the industry, it would be
as if a common language and currency were adopted worldwide. Everything
digital could work together to make life easier. "It is both beautiful in
its sweeping grandeur but also in its painful simplicity," waxes SAP's
Campbell.

But there are lumps in this gravy. As it turns out, getting every part of
the tech industry to agree on an XML standard is, in fact, like trying to
get all nations to agree on a common language.

So what's happened is that there are, oh, 500 or so different versions of
the XML standard evolving, which kind of defeats the purpose. Each version
defines data a little bit differently. There's one version from Microsoft
and another from the World Wide Web Consortium. There's a branch of XML for
electronic business called ebXML, one from Ariba called cXML and real
estate agents have RELML.

For the moment, this is a mess. "We still need to write tools that will
translate between standards," says R U Sure's Vardi. "It is quite a
contradiction in terms, writing tools for the language that requires no
writing of tools."

Getting everyone to agree on labels is going to be tough. Just think of all
the quirky terminology your company or industry uses, and how it's
gibberish to someone from a different industry.

"Just what is an 'employee' anyway?" Campbell says. "Or an 'item'? Everyone
of course argues that the way they have always done it is the right way. It
makes the United Nations look like child's play."

Of course, there is one potential solution. We could hand the whole XML
movement over to Microsoft. It could then bulldoze the babble, set its own
standard and force everyone else to conform. Then Microsoft would become as
dominant on the Web as it now is on the PC.

Whoa. That might even be Microsoft's plan. You think?

[Technology appears Wednesdays. E-mail Kevin Maney at kmaney@usatoday.com
and include name, address and day phone.]

----
Adam@KnowNow.Com

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