XML Shifts Power to Users, But Can They Handle It?

FRAMINGHAM (03/27/2000) - Sometimes you come up with an idea that you instinctively feel should be important, but you have to wait a while to realize why. For example, in 1995, it struck me that one of the most fundamental changes brought about by the Internet was that customers were getting on the Net because of what other customers were doing. In other words, technology users such as Amazon, Yahoo Inc. and ETrade were doing much more to draw people to the Web than technology vendors, such as Cisco Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp. or even America Online Inc.

From a historical IT industry perspective, this shift in creating demand was clearly unprecedented, and it sure felt like a major change in our industry's value chain. But for several years, it was hard to get past the "so what" test.

Why exactly did this matter?

It has only been in the last year or so, with the sharply rising interest in XML, that the significance of this customer-driven revolution has become clear.

If users want to exploit the power of common metatags, shared ontologies, communicating applications and a more databaselike Web, they will have to do most of the work themselves. IT vendors will certainly have a vested interest in helping, but even today's market leaders will find it difficult to drive the necessary setting of standards.

And standards are what the XML movement is all about. Although much has been written about today's confusing mix of industry-specific initiatives and overlapping associations and institutions, I'm much more intrigued by a larger question. For more than 30 years, IT professionals and their corporate bosses have told IT vendors that they want interoperability and standards. But now that the standards burden has shifted to IT users themselves, will they be up to the task?

IT vendors have already taught us a great deal about what to expect. Over the years, most standards efforts have failed because IT vendors, understandably, find it difficult to balance their customers' clear interest in interoperability with their own competitive and business objectives. Indeed, one could argue that there have really been only three great standards successes, and that each involved either chance or government leadership or both.

For example, PCs became standardized because IBM totally dominated the computer business and carelessly decided to provide an open-architecture PC product.

TCP/IP and the related Web standards grew out of government and university efforts largely unconcerned with commercial implications. And the international GSM (Groupe Speciale Mobile) cellular phone system emerged from close (although non-U.S.) government/vendor collaboration.

But in the end, all three standards processes resulted in vendors bringing specific products and services to the market. This, of course, is something vendors will continue to do. There are already many new companies trying to develop shared ontologies for specific markets and industries, and software giants such as SAP, Oracle and Microsoft will influence XML usage in a number of important ways.

But the big changes will have to happen at the customer level. In fact, many IT user organizations will soon find themselves in some very vendorlike predicaments, juggling the desire for interoperability with their own competitive interests. Looking back, it has taken several decades for standards to encompass most of the IT vendor business. But just because our industry now moves more quickly, standards won't necessarily evolve more smoothly. Indeed, many IT user organizations will soon learn what being an IT vendor has always been about.

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