XML: The future of...everything?

XML is just one of dozens of technologies claiming to be the 'next big thing'. But, as Sarah Left explains, this really could be the one that changes our lives

XML is just one of dozens of technologies claiming to be the 'next big thing'. But, as Sarah Left explains, this really could be the one that changes our lives

The IT industry has a new infatuation: extensible mark-up language (XML). To listen to some people, you could be excused for believing that XML will solve every data need you'll ever have, end inner city violence and do the washing up simultaneously. But the industry's littered with good ideas that failed to deliver. Is XML going to be the next example? It's perhaps wise to start with a definition or two. First, we should put to bed the myth that XML is simply an Internet technology or search tool. It's more than that: XML can revolutionise the way your company holds and exchanges data. Its progress is being overseen by a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) committee, and hence should remain an open standard. XML is a way of labelling data so it can be universally recognised and exchanged. XML-tagged data can be understood by any number of diverse applications. Developers create their own tags to describe the data, and any tag can be understood by XML as long as it complies with certain parameters. Where HTML describes how data is displayed, XML describes the data itself. In an Ovum report on the technology, analyst Beth Barling says: "By separating data structure format from the way in which it is displayed (unlike HTML), XML enables data to be presented in multiple formats: for example, human-readable for display on screen through a Web browser, or machine-readable for processing by an automated application." Knowledge management, databases, servers, EDI, middleware, ecommerce - XML is in the early stages of being incorporated into a whole range of applications. With XML, everyone is speaking the same language, no matter what language they're speaking. Imagine access to every last document on your intranet via a simple to use but highly sophisticated search tool. As Simon Phipps, chief Java evangelist at IBM, says: "XML is the next step in the sequence of technologies that started with TCP/IP, grew through Web browsers and has currently reached Java. It completes the set of technologies you need to build open solutions on intranets and the Internet." Object database specialist, Object Design swears by XML. The company has just brought out a beta version of Excelon, a data server that lets companies build Web applications in XML. "It's for people developing high-end, Web-type applications and for use as an integration product on the middle tier," explains UK MD, Jim Beagle. Beagle claims vendors from SAP to Oracle are announcing support for XML and will be serving up XML-enabled data from their products. "It's reminiscent of the Java explosion," he enthuses. Microsoft and Netscape have both pledged to support XML in the next releases of their browsers. "Communicator 5 has full-blown XML," says Ducan Renic, product marketing manager at Netscape. "It makes surfing more intelligent. HTML uses a sledgehammer approach to searching. XML classifies content much like the Dewey decimal system in a library. It supports indexing so you can define what your content is about." Both Netscape and Microsoft already support XML in a limited way. For example, Microsoft's Channel Definition Format (CDF) - which describes the part of a Web site that can be downloaded to your hard disk and then updated periodically as information changes - incorporates XML. Microsoft also has plans to scrap its distributed computing platform, DCom, in favour of XML. The technology will feature prominently in Windows 2000. But XML's future is still in the hands of the developers. There's limited corporate use at the moment, since there aren't any accessible tools around. Barling is in no doubt about its long term prospects, however: "It's not a fad. We are definitely going to see tools coming out in this area. I first heard about XML two years ago, but it's exploded over the last few months." The advice to corporates is that XML is one to watch. "No one has the vaguest idea what its role is going to be," argues Ovum analyst, Gary Barnett. "There's a race on to see who can deliver the road ahead for XML." Object Design's Beagle predicts: "It will be one of the most important key technologies to emerge in the next three years." His advice: get a project going now and see how your company might benefit. "XML has huge promise. What HTML did for document presentation, XML will do for data." Barling has perhaps the best advice of all: "At the moment, it's still 'wait and see'. You have to wait for the tools and see if they work." But with the heavyweight backing it's already got, you won't be waiting long.