Cover story: X marks the spot

"There's a lot of hype," says Brad Baker, senior consultant at Candle Corp, when asked about XML. "Somewhere in the hype there's some power for business. It's received as a panacea but there's still a lot of work to be done because the tools are too immature to take advantage of its potential."

Analyst group International Data Corp (IDC) pegs XML as the new "lingua franca of the Web". The programming language has been adopted as a standard by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and has the support of more than 100 industry organisations, including all major vendors.

XML, like HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), is based on SGML (Standard Generalised Markup Language). The inventor of SGML, Charles GoldFarb, is quoted as saying: "HTML made the Web the world's library, new XML data is making the Web the world's financial Web."

Dave McNaughton, marketing manager e-business solutions at Microsoft, echoes this statement.

"We see that XML is a fundamental building block of the next generation of the Web, in the same way that HTML is a fundamental building block of building the World Wide Web in the first place," McNaughton says.

So what can XML do? XML is a text structuring language, which overcomes many of the limitations of HTML, according to IDC.

Himanshu Dayal, IDC analyst, outlines some of the limitations which led to the creation of XML:

In HTML it is not possible to reproduce specifications of data structures, which is essential for databases and object hierarchiesHTML only describes the appearance of documents and cannot cover any content aspects. It is therefore unsuitable for explicit enquiries.

HTML is not extensible; it is not possible to define your own tags.

Dayal argues that all of these shortcomings of HTML have been taken care of in XML. In XML it is possible to have a native database, such as Software AG's Tamino database, making storage and retrieval of XML data extremely fast.

As XML covers content, it can refine search capabilities so instead of getting hundreds of outputs for the search it is possible to "find" the relevant four to five outputs immediately.

XML, Dayal says is "like the rules of grammar, from which many languages can be derived". Currently there are more than 100 languages that have been derived by various user industries. XML also complements cross platform technology like Java very well, Dayal adds.

Chris Stockton, the director of business integrated solutions at Candle, says XML is used for a variety of purposes, including B2B applications, messaging and interfaces, formatting correspondence and the interface between applications.

"There's a lot of hype but there are reasonable grounds," Stockton says. "It's acting as a consolidation for a range of approaches and it's reduced the range of technology in the field. It's very strongly supported by large organisations and it's got a small but rapidly growing skillbase."

But Candle's Baker compares XML to pre-existing technology, arguing that the adoption of XML as a W3C standard is the real reason XML is taking off in such a big way.

"Application to application messaging is not new - it's like EDIfact from the old EDI days," Baker asserts. "Those standards attempt to do exactly the same thing as XML in a similar way. XML is another go and it may succeed because the Internet has the industry's attention and in the past EDI was considered somewhat exotic and not a core focus. [XML] may actually do it worse [than EDI]. It may not be better - just better known. The W3C has adopted it as a standard, and that's where the power is."

However Michael Hawkins, national product manager at Software AG, believes XML has several key advantages over EDI.

"It's simpler and cheaper than EDI because it's an industry standard and accepted by all the major vendors," Hawkins says. "It's non-proprietary, whereas EDI can be proprietary. In the past EDI was not a success because small to medium businesses couldn't make the investment. XML is now common with people using EDI because vendors are making XML to EDI products."

IDC's Dayal believes that XML will drive B2B e-business, by allowing organisations to use the connectivity of their computer systems to reduce or eliminate overheads and boost productivity.

XML allows data created in one application to be used in another context and thus increase task automation.

"For each task that an organisation performs, it should look at that and wonder if there is something about that task which is a candidate for automation," Dayal explains. "In the past, it would have been prohibitively complex and expensive to create applications that covered every aspect of what people do in business. However, since much of what is done is encapsulated in memos, e-mails, documentation which exist within the system it becomes more possible to link things together."

While XML holds a lot of promise, Candle's Baker says that the technology is yet to fulfil its potential.

"It will be a powerful exchange when it's mature, but as it stands today it's so-so," Baker says, adding that XML tends to create large, bulky files.

He points to two elements that will give XML more power. The first is the XML schemas, which describe data elements within XML, and the second is XSL, a merging of XML and HTML. The W3C is currently considering which schema protocol it will adopt as standard.

Microsoft has already incorporated schemas into its software and is lobbying hard to have its preferred version adopted by the W3C.

"Microsoft's stance is that we will adopt whichever is ratified," says Microsoft's McNaughton. "However we do have a preference."

Other inhibitors to the uptake of XML include the level of understanding and skill in the marketplace, the lack of reference test sites, and business time and availability post Y2K and GST, according to Candle's Stockton.

The Australian development community is not rushing to embrace the new technology, but most concede it will be a valuable tool in the long term.

"I don't think it will replace HTML, but it will be very valuable for lots of things," says Derek Chan, technical director of interactive imaging company Realview Technologies. "We're not using it at this stage but we possibly will for our database. In the future we will probably be storing and deploying in XML."

Karl Veidis, managing director of Sydney-based Webolution Internet Engineering, says his company is considering using XML, but currently there is not enough demand from customers to warrant it.

He warns that XML won't catch on unless there is a compelling reason for companies to use it and there is a critical mass of skilled programmers.

"The reason why there is less likelihood of XML taking off quickly is because of the learning curve," Veidis comments. "The technical expertise is only so deep, especially in Australia."

In mid-1999, IDC conducted a survey where 167 respondents responsible for major software development projects in organisations across Australia, China, India and Singapore were asked about the importance of XML over the next three years. The results indicated that 47 per cent thought XML would be "important" to "critically important", while the same survey in the US showed the result to be close to 70 per cent.

However Software AG's Hawkins says there is a still huge need for education about XML in the marketplace.

"There are still people out there saying this is new and questioning if they really want to start using it yet," Hawkins says. "It's not true - it's been around for two years and it's based on SGML which has been around since the 60s."

XML's close relationship to SGML means that it is a relatively easy language to learn, particularly for those with HTML skills.

"It's a nice crossover for people with HTML skills to work with XML," says Candle's Baker. "It's not that complicated and it has a similar syntax to HTML so it's not too foreign."

IDC's Dayal says that those who learn XML now will find themselves in great demand in the job market.

But the industry is divided on how critical it is for IT professionals to learn XML.

"IT professionals should be finding out about it - what it is and what it can do," says Software AG's Hawkins. "It's a matter of protecting their future because it's going to be used throughout all industries and vertical markets. The sooner they decide what they need to know and in how much detail, the better for them."

However Microsoft's McNaughton says that while XML will be an integral part of most software, there will be no real need for armies of XML programmers.

"I wouldn't say skills are specific around XML," McNaughton says. "No one really learnt to program in PostScript - they just used applications that created it. XML is not necessarily something that you need to learn, it's something that will be intrinsic in applications. People who are traditionally experienced in development or systems applications should be able to do the work. There are some new skills but they don't necessarily require training."

HTML was an exception because it took off before the industry fully adopted and integrated the technology internally, but this was unlikely to be the case with XML, McNaughton asserts.

"If the industry had got onto [HTML] sooner it would have just been used in applications," he explains. "With HTML people who weren't necessarily developers could suddenly call themselves Web developers, but I don't really see that being the case with XML because product development is already so advanced."

XML classes are filling up quickly regardless, according to Software AG's Hawkins. Software AG started running XML courses at the beginning of this year, and is looking for training partners to help run the courses across Australia and New Zealand.

"There have been people using XML since 1998, but most people could spell it and that's it," Hawkins says. "We've done a lot of work educating the industry. There's now a demand for more detailed training and we are filling classes quickly. Education is not keeping up. It's great for us because we can teach more classes. When we started teaching classes there was virtually no one else teaching it - even now I'm only aware of two other companies."

Software AG runs one and two day courses, which include topics like XML, XML Style Sheets and XML application programming.

The popularity of XML seminars and conferences is further testament to the level of interest in XML in the wider marketplace.

Software AG ran a series of XML breakfast seminars in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra with speakers from the W3C earlier this year, and there were 400 attendees in each city. Conferences include the XML Summit in September and the XML Asia Pacific conference at the end of October.

IDC's Dayal is adamant that XML would be the "lingua-franca" of the Web and cost-effective application integration would soon employ XML content tagging. He recommends that software vendors and systems integrators should begin incorporating XML in products and solutions today, so they do not fall behind their competitors.

Winners and losers would be differentiated on the basis of quality of support, including ease of use for development and deployment, he says.

Despite the hype, it is clear XML has the potential to unlock a great deal of power for the IT industry.

"XML is about sharing data and integrating business processes," says Microsoft's McNaughton. "It will take XML to properly get B2B [e-business] rolling."

A growing demand for XML will also provide ample career opportunities for the IT professional.

"There's undoubtedly demand for more people across the board," says Candle's Stockton. "There's a general lack of skills and there's probably an XML shortage."

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