XML 8: Where's it all going? A viewpoint.

The dawn of a new age? A brave new world? An endless horizon? XML may be none of these things, but it's a damn fine markup language for today's Web

It's really very hard for anybody to say where XML will take us. It's such a flexible technology with so many possibilities that nobody is really sure which direction it will take and exactly how it will change things. One thing is for sure though, in a relatively short time it has gained widespread industry support from minor and major players alike, you'll have a tough job finding any IT company with bad things to say about XML.

Perhaps most significantly, the technology has won Microsoft's backing. MS is supporting XML across a wide range of its products -- most notably in Office 2000 -- and has launched an initiative known as BizTalk aimed at encouraging the adoption of XML in business. BizTalk is intended to provide potential users with a set of ground rules for designing and building XML schemas which can be publicly published for use in vertical applications. By following the BizTalk framework and contributing a schema for a given application to the platform the schema designer is more likely to win support and widespread adoption for that schema because it has a degree of MS backing.

A recent example of the kind of new applications enabled by XML is DSML (Directory Services Markup Language) -- an XML schema supported by the likes of Microsoft, Novell and Oracle which allows organisations to share information from heterogeneous directories online with their business partners and customers. Also, Novell recently announced a new product called DirXML which utilises XML to bring together diverse business data from a wide range of sources across the enterprise and make it available through a single directory. The beauty of it is that XML allows Novell to do this without the need to alter the various applications which are the source of that data. So in essence, all of the information stored in the dozens of databases, directories and information repositories found in the average business can be treated as one vast directory without having to mess up your existing IT infrastructure. Typically of XML this opens up the door for completely new applications and business propositions.

Although it's applications are not just limited to the internet, there's no doubt that XML will change the web for the better -- on both sides of the fence. If you're a web developer XML gives you the ability to produce richer, more powerful sites more easily without always having to develop code in languages like PERL or JavaScript.

Ordinary web users will be affected by the spread of XML in different ways. Certainly as more site builders start using the language it will become far easier for people to find what they're looking for. Data stored in web pages can be much more clearly defined, reducing the amount of useless debris users have to trawl through in order to pinpoint exactly what they're looking for. Because of this it's been suggested by some people that the Internet may even start to work faster, purely by virtue of the fact that there will be far less unnecessary information travelling over the wires.

There is one thing that everybody agrees on, because XML eases online data exchange between disparate systems, it will fuel the growth of online commerce and trading like nothing else. The major effect of XML for the average web user is that the web will become a far more useful and powerful business tool whether you're an online buyer or a seller.

So, while there are going to be some clear and easily identified benefits from the widespread adoption of the XML language in the short to mid-term, the sheer flexibility of the technology dictates that the long term impact is almost impossible to predict. After all, five years ago who would have guessed what effect a little thing called HTML would have on the world?

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