XML is being touted by analysts and programmers as the open cross-platform Internet application protocol that will provide the back-end infrastructure to underpin ebusiness in the new millennium.
The HTML derivative, with its ability to operate across multiple platforms, has the potential to allow e-business to be conducted between PCs, handheld devices and next-generation mobile phones. However, XML is currently a minefield of proprietary technology offerings. To tackle the issue, Internet standards body, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), last month announced the release of a next-generation hybrid protocol to bridge the gap for enterprises wanting to adopt XML, and suggested disbanding less flexible HTML standards.
The protocol, developed by the W3C, is known as XHTML version 1.0 and combines the specification standards of both HTML and XML. HTML forces businesses to overhaul websites each time they need to merge data with layout, but XHTML enables management of data and pages on the fly and improves performance of wireless devices through code optimisation and minimal data processing.
Bridging the gap
Tim Berners-Lee, director of the W3C, said: "XHTML connects the present Web to the future Web. It provides the bridge for authors to enter structured data in the XML world, while still being able to maintain operability with user agents that support HTML."
He said the objective of the evolution of HTML to XML is to generate 'write-once, read-anywhere' content using the flexibility of XML to allow easier integration of back-end applications and databases with web-based front ends. It can also cut down on website development time.
Janet Daly, W3C spokeswoman, said the Web is shifting its roots: "We have taken HTML 4.0, the most recent standard, and developed it more in the direction of XML." She added that this allows businesses to use skills they are familiar with to publish content in XML.
Clay Ryder, chief analyst for Zona Research, said XHTML lets programmers place data in context. "It will help interaction, data exchange and combining and reusing information from a variety of sources and sites," Ryder said.
As well as the intermediary XHTML standard, the W3C and the IETF have also thrown their support behind the release of a complete XML product developed by Invisible Worlds. The XML protocol, called Blocks, is being made available for free to encourage uptake. To demonstrate its potential, the company has made 75 Terabytes of US Government data managed by Blocks publicly available.
Carl Malamud, chief executive of Invisible Worlds, said that XML could specify how meta-data tags are exchanged between servers and clients and so pave the way for mobile ebusiness on wireless devices.
Kari Laihonen, manager for IT standardisation at Ericsson, said the need for a fully ecommerce-capable protocol has come about because HTML has no integration with back-end systems. He added that using XML for ecommerce applications allows "a realistic and rapid convergence of mobile and fixed-networks".
Setting the standards
However, with nothing set in stone and only proprietary technology available, XML causes great confusion for end users. Vendors are attempting to exploit the free-for-all situation and impose their own standards either by strength or stealth.
Microsoft has set itself as the example for the former model by proposing a standard for exchanging XML across enterprise firewalls to the IETF. The software giant is promoting Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), which is used in its long delayed ebusiness suite, Biztalk.
Vendor-specific XML-RPC variations suffer from a lack of flexibility, but analysts say Microsoft's SOAP stands a good chance of winning industry support as a standard.
Oracle, on the other hand, has taken a low-key approach by providing an engine configured to recognise data tags in XML content, allowing it to remain independent of standards.
Also taking advantage of the open field is eXcelon, previously Object Designs, which last week launched an ebusiness platform capable of reading any form of XML and turning it into a version that can be understood without client software.
Stephen Lafferty, director of marketing for eXcelon, said: "Enterprises will always have their own XML protocol - this is necessary for the language to remain extensible. But business-to-business is about working with whoever, whenever."
According to Nicholas Gall, analyst at Meta Group, a proposed standard would meet with industry support. Until then, "users requiring a quick and dirty approach to low-end business-to-business applications should consider proprietary protocols to overcome the logjam of partners awaiting a more robust standard".
HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language)Description tags inserted into a file intended for Internet publication, to describe the page for display on a browser.
XML (extensible Markup Language) A more flexible derivative of HTML which integrates back-end applications with the Internet. Allows different types of data to be specified in a document.
XHTML (extensible Hyper Text Markup Language) A hybrid of HTML and XML, designed to introduce XML as a non-proprietary standard. Incorporating elements from both, it only extends HTML and the outcome looks like a more elaborate version of HTML.
FROM HTML TO XML
Mobile devices already use the XML-based Wireless Markup Language (WML) so adopting XML for ecommerce applications would be a natural step forward. HTML doesn't distinguish between different types of data and so cannot be relied upon to provide document organisation capable of supporting context and data-centric searches.
XML designers extend HTML by adding or creating their own tags so content can be used across multiple platforms and data can be integrated between front and back-end applications.
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