XML begins to catch on

Standard takes hold in a growing variety of markets

In the past two days, Laura Walker has gotten some strange phone calls, including one from a gaming industry trade group and another from WebVan, the online grocery-delivery firm. Both wanted to know how they could benefit from XML, the Extensible Markup Language standard for data interchange that's seemingly taking the world by storm.

"It's like a light went on," says Walker, the executive director of OASIS, the Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, explaining the mounting industry interest in the standard.

Vertical-industry associations suddenly are glomming on to XML as the panacea for sharing data in different formats across disparate platforms. Walker points to a growing number of XML working groups in finance, insurance, retail and other arenas as evidence of the standard's growing appeal and acceptance.

At this week's XML'99 conference in Philadelphia USA, the XML fever is apparent. More and more XML--based and XML--related standards efforts--initiatives like XQL (XML query), XHTML, XML Signature--are winding their ways through the standards processes. XML's acceptance in the vertical space is recent. In the past, industry leaders like Microsoft, Sun and IBM have attempted to work hand in hand with vertical--industry associations to further their proprietary development platform infrastructures.

Microsoft, for example, had substantial stakes in making its Object Linking and Embedding technology part of the fabric for data interchange in a handful of key verticals, including financial services, healthcare, insurance, retail/point of sale and the like. More recently, Microsoft moved its vertical--industry efforts toward getting groups to adopt its Distributed interNetwork Architecture platform--which includes its forthcoming BizTalk products and existing BizTalk framework--as the preferred way to share data over the Internet.

But now there's a new movement underfoot. "Microsoft is moving all our data to XML. All new formats will be in XML," says Adam Bosworth, general manager of XML and data access for Microsoft.

"There's not a significant industry that's not working on metadata standards for XML," notes Sun's director of global software operations, Mike Rodgers. At the same time, Rodgers says, XML also is being used to solve horizontal data-sharing problems, like push and messaging.

Industry associations and individual companies focused on particular verticals also are gravitating towards standard XML as the best way to share data inside their companies, as well as between their companies, suppliers and customers. Consequently, XML is becoming the de facto underpinning for e-commerce.

The gaming association, for example, who called OASIS' Walker earlier this week, is interested in seeing how well XML might be able to present and share data, such as how much a particular slot machine has paid out, or even how close a given machine is in relation to a casino bar. WebVan, Walker explains, is interested in how XML will allow the company to better interact with lots of small suppliers and track information such as delivery times, perishable dates and the like.

More and more diverse organizations and entities are seeking similar information from OASIS. OASIS representatives recently presented the benefits of XML to NATO. And the standards group is working with standards groups throughout the world on developing a common XML framework, called ebXML.

"We're telling companies and associations if they're interested, to submit a charter to us," says Walker. "We'll sanction them as a working group and get them things like Web pages, mailing lists and the like. We'll bring visibility to their standards efforts."