XML: Immature but growing

The time will soon come when Extensible Markup Language (XML) will be as accepted as HTML is today. And that will be good for many government agencies. HTML indicates how information is displayed on the World Wide Web. But XML goes further by indicating the function of each piece of data, making it much easier to share data among different applications.

The bottom line is that XML brings functions to the Web that were formerly available only through Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), expanding the number of organizations with which you can do electronic business. And a browser-based data exchange should be much less expensive to develop and maintain because there is no client software to distribute or upgrade.

The large number of vendors that have announced support for XML ensures its eventual acceptance. But so far, there have been few takers. Harvey Seegers, chief executive officer of General Electric Co.'s Global eXchange Services division, which last year added XML to its menu of EDI services, said only about 1 percent of the transactions his company facilitates use browser-based XML.

As far as I know, there are no major government XML-based systems in production. Of course, someone has to be first. But before deciding to become the avant-garde, consider whether you're prepared to work with an immature standard.

Consider that just a few weeks ago, the United Nations' Center for Trade Facilitation and E-business and the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, a consortium of high-tech giants, finally approved ebXML (electronic business XML).

And in May, the World Wide Web Consortium announced that it had approved XML Schema, which defines the structure, content and semantics of XML documents. But some experts have complained that the scheme is too complex. I have no position on the complex.ity issue, but I'm just pointing out that there isn't universal acceptance of the standard yet.

The issue is complicated by the fact that industries are developing XML data definitions that meet their spe.cific requirements. For example, the Mortgage Industry Standards Maintenance Organization has released XML data standards for the mortgage industry.

In March, RosettaNet, a consortium of IT and semiconductor companies, released a nine-layer model that breaks down the XML standard into subsets such as business processes, technical directories and messaging services. This should help industry groups identify how their standards fit together, but a lot more work is needed.

Don't get me wrong. We're not anywhere near a VHS vs. Betamax situation. The standards will converge. But agencies that decide to implement XML applications today must prepare for the possibility of doing some reworking in order to comply with revised standards over the next year or two.

Stevens is a freelance journalist who has written about information technology since 1982.

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