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XML: The online-catalog solution

June 8, 1999
Web posted at: 11:42 a.m. EDT (1542 GMT)

by Gerald Lazar


(IDG) -- A new World Wide Web tool has emerged that promises to revolutionize the way state and local agencies do electronic commerce while protecting investments in such technologies as electronic data interchange (EDI) and Open Buying on the Internet (OBI).

Extensible Markup Language (XML) is a way of defining the content of a document, similar to the way Hypertext Markup Language defines a document's appearance on the Web. XML may enable agencies to rescue data trapped in legacy systems, speed application development and actively configure graphics presentations to suit client hardware.

"XML is probably the culmination of 20 to 30 years of computer theory," said Rita Knox, vice president and research director at Gartner Group. "Within the next year, XML will be everywhere. It will be stabilized, and everyone will be able to use it."

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Proponents say XML is perfect for e-commerce. Rather than maintaining large (and frequently outdated) catalogs on a server, an agency can send automated inquires to suppliers' Web sites, grab appropriately tagged information and return with whatever is needed to run a comparison.

State and local governments have not been rushing to jump on the bandwagon. XML became a standard just a little more than a year ago, and it has only been within the past month or two that the major browser vendors, Microsoft Corp. and Netscape Communications Corp., have made it clear how they will support XML.

In addition, many state and local governments are suspending technology investments pending the outcome of the Year 2000 date change. California, for one, is suspending its e-procurement project, which incorporates XML-based e-commerce technology from webMethods Inc. and Ariba Technologies Inc., to focus on the millennium bug.

XML and HTML grew out of Standard Generalized Markup Language, an international standard for defining the structure and content of an electronic document. SGML, which has been around since the 1970s, enables printed output from different computers to look the same.

HTML took the concept to the Web, defining how a page looks; XML defines what a document is. "XML is a way of marking up plain textual data with tags that give meaning to that information," said Tom Kyte, a technologist with database vendor Oracle Service Industries.

"If you send someone an e-mail with a purchase number in it, you would have no idea what it meant," he said. "Saying, 'Here's the purchase order' is just too verbose. XML... lets the computer parse it and understand it."

XML enthusiasts say the technology can be used for e-commerce, for software development or for obtaining data from legacy systems. "For me," said Gary Lambert, president of the National Association of State Procurement Officials, "XML is a markup language that is going to allow e-commerce to do indexing, primarily to identify items."

David Wascha, project manager for XML Technologies at Microsoft, said "e-commerce is an ideal application, and you don't really need a browser to do it."

In fact, XML will be used widely before it gets much older. That's because it provides a standard cross-platform data format for building applications. In the past, the hardware and software barriers to exchanging data were significant, and proprietary methods were necessary. XML bridges those problems.

"XML will provide a common format to share information with our suppliers and customers," said Brian Richardson, who is part of the Information Systems Group of Washington's Department of General Administration. He said the technology would be ideal for maintaining online catalogs.

"Suppliers will be able to update their product information in a catalog by providing data in an agreed-upon XML format," he said. "This would help buyers search online for products because all vendors would have categorized their product information using the same data format."

Even though XML is a hot technology, competing solutions exist. OBI is an e-commerce solution that uses a version of EDI documentation to accomplish much the same thing as XML. Although the two standards do not coincide today, XML advocates say you may be able to tag OBI documents and use them in XML. Conversely, OBI organizations are speaking of eventually incorporating XML.

XML also is being lauded as a way to rescue investment in EDI. Because data inside an EDI system can be tagged with XML, the information can be used with other XML-based systems. But while that capability is significant in the commercial sector and, to a lesser degree, at the federal level, it may not be as much of a concern to most states.

"Very few states adopted an EDI philosophy," Lambert said. "Massachusetts did it on a very limited basis... only desktop products and office supplies. They'll continue for the time being, then migrate over to an e-procurement solution over the Web."

The move to e-procurement may take a while, mainly because many state and local users do not seem quite ready. "Some of our concerns are a lack of tools and standards for using XML as well as the fact that most of our users use older Web browsers that don't support XML," Richardson said. "We expect these issues to be addressed fairly soon, as standards are now being set and new tools are becoming available."

It could be that 1999 will be the breakout year for XML.

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