Innovation and Products in the Vanguard

FRAMINGHAM (03/15/2000) - THE X FACTOR

Amid the flurry of XML tools, pay close attention to XML servers and open-source software By Peggy King Stuck in traffic on the drive home? Log on to Food.com, a restaurant and delivery service site, from your wireless personal digital assistant and order Chinese takeout. What you see on that small screen is different from what you saw last weekend when you browsed the same site from your WebTV to order pizza during a commercial break. And tomorrow when you order lunch from your office, the display on the Food.com homepage will depend on the speed of the browser your company uses.

Why the customized displays? Because Food.com is using extensible markup language (XML) to specify the amount of text that is appropriate to display and how it should appear, depending on the browser and platform in use. That is possible because XML enables information to be tagged once yet formatted in many different ways. "When I first thought about XML, I focused on how it would streamline data delivery," says Rob Mayfield, chief architect at Food.com in San Francisco. "Now I'm looking at XML for rendering capabilities that allow me to customize the way our site displays content."

XML is an open standard for defining and sharing data on the web. Like HTML, it is a tag language, but it's more flexible than HTML and better suited for integrating data from a variety of sources. XML works well in applications that transfer data from one system to another, applications that offer different views of the same data and for electronic publishing.

AVALANCHE OF TOOLS Smart corporate developers like Mayfield are finding clever ways to exploit the extensibility of XML with the help of newly released application development tools. Within the last six months, a bewildering assortment of commercial and open-source tools have become available. "It's a market that's all over the place. Every week there are new products that become available," says Douglas Barry, founder and principal of the database consulting firm Barry & Associates in Burnsville, Minn.

In general, XML tools are available in three price ranges. The most expensive are XML application servers with data storage capabilities. These typically sell for several thousand dollars per CPU. Some vendors that sell application servers also sell XML toolkits for several hundred dollars. For example, Bluestone Software's XML-Server typically sells for $3,000, but its Visual-XML developer toolkit is $99 a seat.

The second category includes downloadable versions of individual XML tools, which are often priced at around $100. Some examples of tool types are schema editors, translators and data extractors. For example, Extensibility sells XML Authority--a tool for managing XML schemas, or graphical representations of the structures that appear in XML documents--for $100 for a single-user license.

The third and largest category, however, is free open-source software.

Open-source tools are available for free downloads at vendor and foundation websites such as the Apache Software Foundation in Forest Hill, Md., a not-for-profit organization that was designed to support open, collaborative software development. The most widely used free XML tools are parsers, the tools that decode XML tags in various programming languages. Among the companies that have donated their XML parsers to Apache are IBM and Sun Microsystems. Late last year, Apache began the Xerces project to combine the best features of these XML parsers.

For their part, Mayfield and his team are using Bluestone Software's Total-e-Business suite of tools, along with popular open-source tools, including LotusXSL, for using the extensible style language (XSL), which reformats XML into HTML for display purposes.

GETTING STARTED People just getting into XML development may wonder whether to begin with an XML server or with individual tools. If your XML application development budget allows for only one purchase, invest in an XML server, preferably one that works well with your database and web application server.

XML servers, also called XML data servers, refer to a wide range of middleware products that automate the exchange of XML-compliant structured data. "The term is used loosely because there are many vendors that want to say they have an XML server," notes Michael Goulde, executive vice president and senior consultant with the Patricia Seybold Group, an IT consultancy in Boston.

Choosing an XML server requires serious investigation because the storage methods and capabilities of these products vary greatly, Barry agrees. At a minimum, an XML server stores and retrieves data from various sources, applies the appropriate markup tags and distributes it to applications. Bluestone Software and Software AG are among the vendors that introduced XML servers last year.

However, some servers simply serve up XML tags, while others actually store the XML data. Among those in the latter category, some may use an object database, others a relational database or even a flat file. "It's important to understand your data storage needs and to make sure that the XML servers you are considering meet your needs before you make a final choice," Barry says.

MOVE OVER, SGML XML is also replacing standard generalized markup language (SGML) tools as the way to format structured documents. Therefore, some of the most popular SGML authoring tools have been reincarnated as XML authoring tools.

XML authoring tools automate the process of adding XML tags to standard word processing documents. For example, WizeUp.com, a digital college textbook publisher in New York City, uses Enigma's DynaTag to insert searchable and printable notes into its textbooks. The XML tags ensure that notes will appear at the appropriate locations within the text.

DynaTag was originally an authoring tool for SGML. Others that have evolved from SGML include Arbortext's Adept and Adobe Systems' FrameMaker + SGML.

GIVE AND TAKE Even in corporate settings, many of the most widely used XML tools are the parsers, XSL processors and other tools available free from vendors' websites or those of nonprofit organizations. For example, insurance e-commerce technology provider ChannelPoint.com in Colorado Springs, Colo., has used XML in developing an internet portal for insurance and benefits brokers and agents. ChannelPoint Chief Architect Tom LaStrange used open-source tools including the IBM XML4J parser and Java-based LotusXSL stylesheet technology to create XML data models of paper-based forms for online enrollment. XML4J and LotusXSL are both available through a free download from AlphaWorks, IBM's website for emerging software technology (www.alphaworks.ibm.com). LotusXSL is also available from the Apache Software Foundation.

In fact, the marketplace for XML tools has begun to resemble the market for Java development tools, in which some of the most widely used tools are ones that vendors have donated. However, the traditional caveats regarding open-source software still apply. "If a developer's goal is to gain an understanding of the technology, open-source tools work well," says Goulde.

"But if the goal is to build an application, developers will want the service and support that a vendor can provide paying customers."

How risky is it to use open-source XML tools? That depends on which tool you're using. "If you are using an XML parser or conversion tool, you have not lost anything but time if the tool does not work," says Barry. However, he adds, it's an entirely different situation where data storage is involved. "If you are using an XML product that stores data, your company is at serious risk if the data storage breaks and corrupts your data. It's essential to have extensive support for any XML server that supports large databases and busy websites," he says.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT But despite the flurry of XML tool announcements, there are still holes to be filled. One tool that Food.com's Mayfield is still seeking is a good XSL creation tool. "I'd like to find tools that would make stylesheets easier to use. These tools would eliminate some of the need for writing browser-specific code," he says.

And while LaStrange was creating ChannelPoint's XML-enabled site, he developed Merlot, a Java-based extensible XML editor that his company is making freely available as open source. LaStrange believed that the XML community needed an XML editor that would allow developers to create custom editors for individual XML elements.

As for XML's future, the market will undergo big changes within the next two years, after standards organizations ratify key standards for it, Goulde says.

"XML is destined to be so universally supported that separate XML products will no longer be necessary," he says. "When XML standards are in place, XML will become at once less visible but more present." That is, a wide range of server products will be able to store and retrieve XML behind the scenes. "XML will be so deeply embedded in the core application development tools that developers will no longer need to think about the low-level details of its syntax," he says.

Peggy King is an Oakland, Calif.-based writer. She can be reached at peggyking@aol.com.

NEW PRODUCTS

NEWS WANTS TO BE FREE How much would it cost a vendor to cull links to news stories from 1,500 websites, organize them by topic and feed them to a company website or intranet? At Moreover.com, the answer is zilch. Using a proprietary software "harvester," Moreover.com scans business and general news sites, copies headlines and links, and develops "webfeeds" on more than 200 topics, ranging from accounting to the arts; other companies can incorporate these feeds into their websites to add fresh content, free of charge. For more information, visit www.moreover.com or call 415 371-8060.

FORGET THOSE PASSWORDS Remembering passwords for multiple websites can be a mind-boggling challenge. Amazing Smart Card Technologies, a PubliCard subsidiary, is a smart-card-based product for securely storing internet passwords, user IDs and URLs. For $80, Smart Passky includes a smart-card reader that hooks up to a PC's serial port and two smart cards. Smart Passky can also store credit card numbers and mailing addresses. But users must still remember one password-a master access code that protects the smart card itself.

For more information, visit www.publicard.com or call 408 566-0300.

HANDS OFF THAT PALM! To protect your Palm Computing device from prying hands, Applied Biometrics Products has developed Kryptic Pilot, a portable fingerprint identification unit. The battery-operated unit includes a fingerprint scanner as well as software for storing and identifying the Palm user's fingerprint.

Kryptic Pilot, now available through OEMs, is expected to hit the retail market in the third quarter of this year. The estimated retail price is $100 to $120; discounts are available for large OEM purchases. For further information, visit www.appliedbiometrics.net or call 603 544-8405.

WALK IN THE CUSTOMER'S SHOES Customers who have a bad experience at a website may never return to that site. But how does a company know whether its website offers a good or bad customer experience? Evity is offering a service, called SiteAngel 2000, that simulates a customer's travels through a website and compares the experience with the site's pre-set goals for uptime, page load times and other metrics. According to the company, SiteAngel generates high-level reports that are easy enough for a CEO to understand-and nitty-gritty reports that let the IS department drill down into the technical details behind the customer experience problem. Starting at $12,000 per year, subscription pricing increases based on the number of "angels" that visit the site-that is, the number of critical paths through the site that need to be simulated-and the frequency of their visits. The company also offers consulting, priced at $2,000 per day plus travel expenses. For more information, visit www.evity.com or call 512 305-0370.

PUTTING PEOPLE IN THEIR PLACE Steel was the raw material of the industrial economy; talent is the raw material of the service economy. PeopleMover has released PeopleMover/Service Automation, a web-based application built with EJBs and XML technology to help professional service firms manage their teams of talent. The product enables companies to track employees' skills and current assignments as well as keep an eye on future projects and forecast customer demand; a self-service feature lets employees update their own information and put in dibs for projects they want to work on. The application is sold as a hosted application or a standalone, internally deployed application. Hosted application pricing is $45 per month per user; standalone pricing is $1,500 per user or $1,800 per manager and $300 per consultant. For further information, visit www.peoplemover.com or call 310 819-1900.

PORTABLE BACKUP In the realm of notebook backup, always a bugaboo because the machines are frequently beyond the control of the IT department, CMS Peripherals has created Automatic Backup System (ABS), which automatically launches system backup when a user plugs in a PC card connected by a ribbon cable to a small storage device roughly the size of an index card. The system incorporates backup software so that each subsequent time the ABS is plugged in it performs only an incremental backup of modified files. The user can reconfigure the software to do a full backup if desired. Archived files are stored in their native file formats and can be recovered through Windows Explorer. According to CMS, users can even travel solely with the ABS and simply plug it into another laptop at their destination. The Automatic Backup System is currently available in four hard-drive capacities with an average price of less than 10 cents per megabyte. The 4.3GB model costs $389; the 6.4GB model, $489; the 8.1GB model, $629; and the 10GB model, $689. For more information, visit www.cmsperipheralsinc.com or call 800 327-5773.

REVISIT ISDN

It Still Does Nothing? ISDN falls far short of promise By Fred Hapgood In May 1990 CIO felt bold enough to select the three core problems facing business in the immediate future (globalization, customer relationships, cost effectiveness) and the technologies that represented at least their partial solutions (voice-data integration, image handling and live collaboration).

As the article made clear, the solutions were a bit hypothetical, since they all rested on a platform that was not yet in place. That platform was ISDN, which stood either for Integrated Services Digital Network or It Still Does Nothing, depending on the writer's mood. In theory, ISDN advanced the cause of integration by carrying voice and data simultaneously over a single connection, image handling by supplying handsome increases in bandwidth, and live collaboration by reserving a circuit for each party that ran straight to the other. Reserved circuits kept the delay between an action and its response to a minimum, making real-time collaboration next to seamless. (Packet routing, in contrast, shares resources among many connections; when several of those connections get especially busy at the same time, the facilities they are sharing are likely to be overwhelmed, causing delays.) Plus, ISDN was unrolling rapidly in Europe, implying it would be a useful tool for reaching global markets.

While the article did point out that most of the enabling software had yet to be written, there was no hint that a general bet on ISDN would be much of a gamble. After all, by 1990 the phone companies had been working on ISDN for more than 10 years; surely the bugs were pretty much all hammered out. In this opinion the author was not alone: A 1992 conference celebrated the opening of the ISDN era. Robert Metcalfe, the inventor of the ethernet, stood up and hailed ISDN as the true beginning of the information age.

Ten years later, CIO's picks for the core problems and their solutions still seems pretty solid. The only piece missing is ISDN, which never came close to beating out IP packet routing as the next communications platform. Some observers blame the FCC, whose interest in promoting competition delayed standardization, or even the breakup of AT&T, which was just about to tackle ISDN when Judge Greene gave the company more pressing matters to worry about.

Most finger the telcos. Woody Benson, president and CEO of MCK Communications, which sells remote access services, thinks the constant drumbeat of installation horror stories traumatized the market. Peter Geier, a senior marketing manager at Eicon Technology, a competitor, believes the telcos overplayed their pricing. "They saw ISDN as a premium service they could make money with instead of just the next generation of voice service," he said. He believes the experience of other countries, particularly Germany, suggests the phone companies would have made a lot more from ISDN if they had begun expecting to make less.

A fourth theory hits closer to home: ISDN was slain by its own hype. Widespread enthusiasm over it seduced the phone companies into thinking they had a new microcomputer industry by the tail. They rushed in, but since they had no experience with marketing or installing cutting-edge technologies (the last big innovation in phone service had been direct dialing in the '50s), they did a poor job on both. The resulting collapse in expectations soured the market on ISDN.

This is unfortunate, since ISDN does in fact have several niche applications within which it works especially well. The integration of voice and data over the same connection can be especially convenient. ISPs are using this feature to terminate calls from 56K modems. Several companies, including the California Lottery and 7-Eleven, have equipped their retail outlets with ISDN so that they can gather continuous streams of data while using the voice side for ordinary telephony. The inherently high voice quality and ease of call management make ISDN a natural PBX technology. As a result, ISDN has been growing steadily, if quietly. According to Geier, about 300,000 ISDN connections were installed last year, pushing the total U.S. market to about 2 million.

While this is a fraction of the market that ISDN boosters would have expected to see by now, many industries would be happy with 2 million customers and a growth rate of 15 percent. Paradoxically, however, some industry observers think the telcos are seriously considering writing off their investment in the technology anyway. Charles Eazor, vice president and general manager of Internet Communications Corp., observes that from a telco perspective packet routing is much cheaper and easier to maintain than a structured, point-to-point, reserved channel service like ISDN. His impression is that the prospect of these savings is diverting investments from ISDN infrastructure. If he is right, history might yet conclude that the telcos made two great blunders in managing ISDN: one when they picked it up and one when they put it down.

PREDICTIONS INTERACTIVE TELEVISION

21ST CENTURY TV

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of interactive television may have been greatly exaggerated. New York City-based Jupiter Communications predicts that interactive television will make a comeback by 2004, when it will be available in 30 million U.S. households and generate $10 billion in revenues through a mixture of commerce and advertising. But the 21st century version of interactive television won't look much like the one that failed to catch on in the early 1990s.

Those pioneering interactive TV trials failed largely because the infrastructure wasn't ready: No one knew what kind of content or services consumers would want, and no one could figure out how to make money from it.

"If you can't deliver video-on-demand for less than what Blockbuster does for renting a video, it's not going to sell," says David Card, a Jupiter senior analyst. Today, however, cable providers and satellite companies have begun rolling out the needed infrastructure. And America Online has shown what kind of interactivity consumers want-e-mail, chat, shopping and other useful services. "Consumer interactivity is about utility and communications," Card says. "It isn't about voting on the outcome of a TV show."

What will the interactive television experience look like in 2004? Viewers won't sit in front of the TV with a keyboard in their laps, nor will they see interactive TV as a replacement for the web. They will be able to see information that supplements whatever show they are watching, and maybe even do a little impulse shopping. "The dominant interactive platform for consumers, as far out as we can see, is still going to be the PC," Card says. "But television is going to be a lot more interesting than you thought." -Sari Kalin UNDER DEVELOPMENT ELECTRONIC BILL PRESENTMENT A SIMPLER TIME Companies have long anticipated the time when billing would be simplified and streamlined by electronic bill presentment and payment. EBPP holds particular promise for industries such as telecommunications, financial services and utilities, for which billing is a big chunk of their business and a huge expense.

The typical cost of producing and sending a statement by snail mail is between 90 cents and $1.25, whereas an electronic bill costs only 25 to 30 cents to generate and deliver, according to Marian Lewandowski, vice president of professional services for The Xenos Group, a Richmond Hill, Ontario-based EBPP service provider. He adds that the real savings for most companies and customers will be in making payments, where the average processing cost drops from $1.50 to snail mail a paper-based payment to a mere 10 cents to pay an e-bill.

However, EBPP technology has faced significant barriers to widespread acceptance in the United States. CIOs have been reluctant to invest in it because of the various models and platforms available. In some models, users pay bills through portal sites like Yahoo, whereas other models enable users to go directly to a bank's website or to an electronic post office. For those models using consolidators such as CheckFree--a third party that works between the biller and the payee--CIOs have to decide how much information to give them. For example, in the "thick consolidator" model, the third party has all information about customers' bills, so customers deal directly with the consolidator and never have to go the biller's site. But the "thin consolidator" model is used when a company prefers its customers visit its site when they need more information about their accounts.

Selecting the right model is difficult, agrees Lewandowski. "There is no one predominant model," he says, "and none of those models is going to win the day." Lewandowski believes that smart billers will adopt all the available models and let their customers select their preference. That's great news for consumers but a daunting prospect for CIOs.

An additional obstacle to implementation is that unlike Europe and Canada, the United States has not had the infrastructure in place to handle large-scale EBPP initiatives and has been plagued with problems, such as integrating online billing applications with legacy applications and the dearth of strong web standards in the financial industry. EBPP received a boost last fall, however, when Spectrum, a joint venture between Chase Manhattan, First Union and Wells Fargo, began operations. Spectrum provides a standards-based, interoperable infrastructure for EBPP that will bring the promise of digital billing much closer to reality.

CIOs who are considering an EBPP strategy should view the issue from the corporate level rather than as simply a billing program, suggests Michael Killen, chairman and founder of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Killen & Associates, an e-business consultancy. The strategy behind electronic bill presentment is about multichannel e-business, marketing and customer care, he adds. "CIOs need to think about how to support the entire corporation in reaching out to internet users," says Killen, "and using that process to generate a competitive advantage and e-commerce." -Daintry Duffy BUZZWORDS Generation I the internet generation, succeeding Generation Y Ticker Shock what you get with a real-time NYSE or Nasdaq feed on your desktop e-customer experience...palm security...professional service automation.

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