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Opinion: The XML wars are just heating up

June 22, 1999
Web posted at: 4:53 p.m. EDT (2053 GMT)

by Rawn Shah

Windows TechEdge

(IDG) -- The fight over the direction of XML technology just keeps getting messier. In recent weeks, Microsoft announced its Web portal and reiterated its plans to create standard XML-based schemata, or document type definitions (DTDs), for the Windows environment. Not wanting to miss the party, old market adversaries IBM and Sun are backing an alternative XML advisory group to make sure they get their two cents in.

This small, nonprofit industry group is called the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS). OASIS hosts a Web portal called that will contain resources and DTD blueprints tailored for various industries. Under the supervisory umbrella of OASIS, technical committees made up of representatives from over 70 member companies will work on specific DTDs for business-to-business transactions.

A small OASIS

OASIS is a tiny voice for now, especially when compared to Microsoft's sizable influence. However, it does have strong partners in IBM, Sun, Boeing, Adobe, and Software AG. Now, even Microsoft is paying attention. Originally, Redmond eyed the new group with contempt, declaring its distrust of OASIS's motives openly and questioning the group's relevance. But that attitude has changed in the past few weeks. It looks like Microsoft is worried: if its rocks the XML boat too hard, it might end up pitching itself over the side.

For its part, Microsoft will continue to work on the BizTalk initiative, offering information through the portal, as well as further support for XML technologies in upcoming products. Redmond has a huge stake in the continued health of XML. The new language will form the foundation of a number of future Microsoft products, and is a cornerstone of its Distributed Internet Applications (DNA) architecture plan. If this proverbial spaghetti doesn't stick to the industry wall, Microsoft will have a lot of explaining to do, after all its promotional activities in this area.

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Too many standards bodies?

Being a self-proclaimed cynic, I can only wonder at the need for YAISO (yet another Internet standards organization). It seems people are never satisfied with the existing standards bodies, and feel they need to start their own club in order to see their ideas implemented. The sad part is, they're right: the little guy's ideas are always swept aside by the big and powerful. But creating more standards groups isn't the answer.

First of all, standards groups tend to become tight-knit cliques even when they have an open membership policy. When they grow to a certain size, the sheer bureaucracy of taking opinions from so many vendors becomes a daunting task in itself. Simply getting everyone to agree takes more time than it should, greatly slowing down the evolution of a technology.

These groups are basically corporate republics anyway, not democracies. They allow semi-open participation from small vendors and individuals, but most of their decisions tend to favor the positions of the larger vendors. The opinions of larger companies naturally carry more weight, since they are the ones that make the products the technology will use. Unfortunately, we really haven't found a way to do without them, and so the beat goes on.

A tower of babel?

If we do democratize our standards-making process, however, we end up breeding confusion and chaos in the very technologies we want to standardize. XML itself is just a simple syntax for creating other languages and grammars. If we all go around creating our own languages and grammars, then we'll just end up turning the computing world into a tower of babel where everyone will be speaking in a different tongue.

Here's one easy prediction: no matter what, there will be different XML languages and dialects available for the same task. For example, even after a standard XML for banking is established, some banks will likely use their own XML dialect to exchange financial data with their partners. Manufacturers are going to create their own languages for each and every proprietary manufacturing process, and employ their own dialects in different situations. Pulling together something as singular as the Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) system is very unlikely this time around. There are simply too many potential billions of dollars involved for everyone to cooperate nicely.

The major vendors are the only ones likely to get some momentum behind their own dialects. They will be able to create their own domain of XML users; their decisions about how to support them will then establish a de facto standard for those users. Top vendors like IBM, Sun, and Microsoft will have lots of tools to work with their respective versions of XML, making their dialects more popular. This, in turn, will result in translation gateway products that automatically convert between the syntactical and grammatical considerations of each language or dialect. Vendors would be very happy to sell you licenses for such gateways, so that you can conduct business the old-fashioned, convoluted way.

It's ridiculous to say that balkanization is occurring here; after all, a unified territory doesn't yet exist. All there is, at the moment, is the potential existence of a new market territory, and vendors are trying to divvy it up between them.

At the moment, the best advice I can give those eager to implement XML is to watch and see. Too much is being shuffled around at the moment to predict what will happen in the next few months, let alone the next few years. The good news is that the major vendors see the potential. If you stick to a vendor that you trust to make sane e-commerce decisions, your XML plans may be safe for some time to come. Keep a close eye on their work and hold off making any decisions till the end of 2000. Early adopters are definitely kayaking in dangerous waters, but don't look to standards bodies to offer a life raft.

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