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New Web language promises smarter surfing

July 1, 1998
Web posted at: 11:45 AM EDT

by Jim Heid

(IDG) -- This time next year, if predictions pan out, the Web will be a very different place to surf. You'll conduct searches with surgical precision and sort tables of data in a flash; you'll also enjoy faster performance, enhanced online shopping, and seamless file swapping between programs.

All this thanks to a new technology called XML. Short for Extensible Markup Language, XML was officially adopted as a standard this past February by the World Wide Web Consortium -- the ad hoc governors of the Web. Since then, a Who's Who of software companies -- including Adobe Systems, IBM, Lotus, Microsoft, and Netscape Communications--have publicly committed to supporting the language.

So what's all the fuss about? The typical Web page is a mix of text and graphics whose appearance is controlled by the Hypertext Markup Language. HTML is good at describing a Web page's layout, but it's incapable of describing the page's content -- it can't identify a piece of text as an author's byline, or a number as a price. This lack of content description presents a serious hassle for Web users.

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Take searching (please!). Submitting a query today on the word prince will summon up pages about the enigmatic musician, Prince Edward Island, and Prince Charles. Today's search engines don't know whether the word refers to a musician, a member of the royal family, or part of Canada. A supplement to HTML, XML lets Web site creators insert metatags -- or text commands -- into their pages, which your browser would be able to read, act on, but not display. The metatags would say, in effect, "the following text is a musician's name," or "the following numbers are a batting average." They would permit an XML-savvy search engine to yield more relevant results.

XML's potential extends beyond the Web. XML-coded files could be ideal vehicles for moving data between programs. Microsoft has announced that the next version of Office (to be released late this year or early next year) will use XML to permit "round-tripping" -- moving Office documents to the Web and back without losing formatting. Lotus also pledges to support XML in its next office suite. Such support could well kill off other cross-platform formats such as RTF.

But before XML can live up to its promise, it must surmount two big obstacles. First, there's browser support: Only Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4 currently supports XML. Netscape will be adding support in Communicator 5. But millions of Web surfers still use older browsers that don't understand the new language. Second, for XML to work content providers need to implement it consistently. Each separate industry will have to reach consensus on the metatags its members will use.

Given the chaos that is the Web, that consensus could be difficult to achieve. That's one reason experts predict it will be another year before XML's effects begin to be felt. But the language has so many advantages, says Donald DePalma, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the required cooperation will eventually come.

Edited by Glenn McDonald.

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