Ballmer sees XML revolution

First there was the personal computer, then a graphical user interface, then the Internet.

Now the fourth computer revolution is at hand — XML — at least according to Steve Ballmer, chief executive officer of Microsoft Corp.

XML, short for Extensible Markup Language, is destined to become the "lingua franca" of the Internet, Ballmer said in an address to information technology experts from 75 countries who gathered in Seattle April 16 for a Microsoft conference.

If Ballmer is right, the impact on government could be substantial.

XML is a computer language that enables dissimilar computer systems to communicate with one another. For governments, that means old computer systems that speak only old programming languages suddenly will be able to talk to new systems. And new systems that speak different languages also will be able to communicate.

This new communication capability will mean money saved and upheaval avoided, Ballmer said.

XML makes it possible to move into e-government without undergoing massive — and massively expensive — overhauls of computer systems, or politically unacceptable reorganizations of long-established social institutions, Ballmer said.

Governments can't "rip up" entrenched tax systems or well-established benefits agencies to transform them for the e-government era, he said, but XML nevertheless will make it possible to take advantage of new technology.

"Remarkable things can be done at a reasonable cost" with XML, Ballmer said. "We're on the verge of another breakthrough. Everything is going to be better and better and better" as XML is adopted during the next several years.

With that in mind, Microsoft has embraced XML, producing a ".Net" series of products and services that use it. The new software and services, Microsoft says, can transform "isolated applications into individual building blocks of software" that can then be arranged in "an infinite number of ways" to perform many online functions. For example, XML made it possible for the Australian tax office to tie its disparate business tax systems together and put a simpler tax system online for Australian businesses, Ballmer said.

In the United States, the Agriculture Department is developing a system that pulls together satellite images of land throughout the nation with data on crop yields, soil conditions and other information that farmers need to maximize production. XML ties together the various databases, Ballmer said.

In Massachusetts, state officials, hospitals, doctors and social service agencies have developed an online system that quickly assesses users' eligibility for benefits and locates providers of services — ranging from medical care to job training, emergency housing and child care.

The system uses a combination of legacy data and new tools tied together by XML, he said.

But such systems remain all too rare, Ballmer said. "The whole e-government phenomenon has moved more slowly than I would have guessed." Why? Probably because like any business re-engineering process, the move to e-government often involves wrenching change for familiar public organizations.

XML may change that. With XML, "You can really do remarkable things without massive change to your systems," Ballmer said.

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