What is XML?

You may have heard of HTML (hypertext markup language), one of the building blocks of websites that tells browsers how data should be laid out cosmetically onscreen. Extensible markup language (XML) goes beyond that, telling systems how information should be rendered and, more important, specifying exactly what kind of information it is. It is through XML, for example, that a system can recognize a string of numbers and text as an invoice or a set of computer-aided design images as elements in a parts catalog. With those built-in smarts, applications can share information more easily. And XML is considered highly extensible because developers can tailor the language to their unique data interchange needs.

What can XML really do for my business?

XML is likely to become the standard for automating data exchange between business systems, whether between systems in one company or between suppliers and customers. Let's say a customer orders a digital camera from a website. If the site selling the camera is using XML as the behind-the-scenes communications mechanism, the order pings an inventory database to ensure the camera is in stock and hits a customer database to get shipping and billing information. XML can help tap into a third-party supplier's logistics system to arrange for delivery. XML could play a similar role for a customer relationship management application. A sales representative at a bank handling complaints about charges on a personal checking account would want to know if that same individual had commercial accounts with the bank to respond properly. XML helps put all the data in a similar format, allowing the different applications to share data without cumbersome conversions.

Does XML work only on the Web?

XML does have bearing beyond the Internet. While it describes both the content and structure of a piece of information, it performs these functions separately. That makes it easy to take content described in XML for display onscreen and present it somewhere else, say for example, on a wireless device. XML could also play a role in creating links among legacy applications since it's likely to become a viable way of representing complex data like financials information or manufacturing data.

Is XML the panacea for data exchange woes?

No. By itself, XML is nothing more than an alphabet-the basic building block for creating a data exchange platform. As support for XML builds, companies and industries will work together to create vertical and horizontal standards that will allow for this interchange. But that standards process is just beginning. And XML is complex beyond most people's reckoning. While anybody with a text editor and a few minutes can write a basic HTML document, putting your company's data in XML requires serious consideration by highly proficient people. For now, XML remains a work in progress.

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