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Don’t be afraid to show your ignorance. If it weren’t for the Dark Ages, we would have never had a Renaissance.

Ignorant Soul: OK, so HTML is the code for creating web pages. But what the heck is XML?–Eric Edgerton, Madrona

Ignoramus: Eric, you’re on the ball (and thanks for not swearing). As you may have noticed, the Internet is all about channeling content–accessing it, customizing it and making it serve us. While HTML can present web pages to us, it can’t tell us squat about what kind of content is on those pages. XML, however, is about to change all that.
How? Stick with me and you’ll understand the basic principles of the Web’s next revolutionary advance. I promise not to get too technical. Because XML is like Canon’s advertising slogan of the 1990’s: it’s so advanced, it’s simple.
If you’ve ever looked at the plumbing inside a Web page (or looked over your Webmaster’s shoulder) you may already know that HTML is all about tags: what’s inside these two brackets <???>. There are tags that describe just about every possible way a Web page can look — headline size, alignment, color, boldness, picture size, and so on. Unfortunately, that’s ALL HTML can do.

Making Dumb Pages Smart
What Web tags ought to convey is content, not just format. In the big picture, it matters little whether your <background=blue>. Instead, tell the world that your Web page announces a <PRICE> or <SHOE SIZE> or <AUTOMOBILE> or <BOOK TITLE>.
This kind of classification would make things like product and pricing information easier to find and to compare. That’s what XML is: a content definition language. XML turns the Web into one giant virtual database where everything has a name.
By creating a single, unified standard for defining information, XML lets computers talk to one another without our constant attention. A scary notion to some, XML will allow computers to do the shopping on their own. The PC owners’ eyeballs are no longer needed simply to locate a piece of data on a page.
An automated PC shopping trip to the <grocery store> will quickly surmise if the <seafood> section contains <salmon> or <halibut> and if it’s from <Alaska>, <Seattle> or <farm grown>. By using XML, the computer knows what you’re looking for, and it knows when it has found it.
For example, you can ask your computer to monitor when the <airfare> for a <night> <flight> to <Los Angeles> falls below a <price> of $200 and then purchase two <coach seats>. HTML is eyeball-centric. With XML, your wish is its command.

The Name Space
In the months ahead, trade groups, businesses, schools, hospitals (you name it) will begin to write their own XML glossaries. They’ll choose the terms that best describe the content and services they deal with everyday. These new Web glossaries will come not from INTERNIC, Switzerland or some university brain trust, but from people who know their category inside-out — people willing to sit down around the table with others in their trade group or professional community.
Many have already begun inventing the name space by which their products and services can be labeled. A name space is an online glossary that contains definitions for products and their qualities and then translates these definitions, as well as their synonyms, into the appropriate tags.

One Document, Many Possibilities
What XML can do with documents is pretty amazing. Just one master XML document written in XSL, the XML Style Language, can include tags for many diverse forms of publishing. With an XSL style sheet, the same document can be output in large print or Braille, collapsed to outline form or formatted for print. Imagine a product brochure, annual report or technical manual that automatically adapts itself to the learning curve of the user, with styles for beginners and for the more advanced. This is just part of what can happen when you gain the ability to control *the content* of information that is being created and not just *the look* of how it is displayed.
The ability to classify data and to know exactly what information fits where allows XML to automatically update any document that you publish and then make Web-enabled. Small bits of information sent to your customers’ computers might update a price list, a catalog, a restaurant menu or anything else you select. And it could be just as easily conveyed on a Web page, in e-mail, or in any new technology that comes along.
For the business exec, XML provides a kind of e-commerce DNA, an identifiable link to every part of the e-commerce system. But XML will be useful for any kind of Web publishing or communication.
Take the time now to explore XML within your environment. By turning dumb pages into smart data, XML is destined to become the X-factor for organizing the Web.

The Local Angle
Need more proof that XML is the wave of the future? In the first half of 2000, more than $100 million in venture capital flowed to Seattle companies working with XML, and Microsoft is also making big strides in the field. Microsoft’s XML home page lists an impressive variety of projects; one of the most important is the Microsoft B2B solution framework called BizTalk.
The second-biggest local XML player is probably Bellevue’s DataChannel ($45 million in funding in April 2000), whose main product is the DataChannel Server, capable of converting and serving over 200 different file formats.
Aventail, which got $48 million in additional funding in February 2000, builds and manages private B2B networks for many of America’s largest companies; it uses XML extensively but not exclusively.

The XMLFund
The local XML scene has also gotten a boost from the XMLFund, created in 1999 by David Pool, the founder of DataChannel. The fund’s portfolio includes these startups:

  • TrueVertical caters to “vertical” B2B markets, meaning all online fishmongers or photo processors, for example. (By contrast, “horizontal” XML markets are based on some particular item, or “object,” such as electronic contracts, used by many different types of organizations.)
  • Nimble Technology’s software allows for queries across multiple databases and lets website visitors customize their usage of the site.
  • ThinkView, founded by a former InfoSpace exec, is compiling subsets of the vast amount of information available on the Web. One potential revenue source is advertising– find a way to identify and compile the content of greatest interest to, say, sports fans who make more than $60K a year, and Nike will beat a path to your door.
  • XML Global’s flagship project is the GoXML search engine, and they’re also working on ebusiness integration.
  • The two XML-consuming companies in XMLFund’s portfolio are Fishmonger.com, an online fish wholesaler, and PhotoTrust, a photo digitizing and archiving service.

Got a question for Ignoramus? E-mail him at ignoramus@seattle24x7.com. Be warned, however. Because of his strenuous pudding-making schedule, he can’t answer all queries.

Read More About It
For more info on XML, www.xml.org is the mother lode. This is part of OASIS, the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards. For the official XML specs and related technical discussions, go to the WWW Consortium. Top-notch computer-book publisher O’Reilly provides both www.xml.com and Robert Eckstein’s XML Pocket Reference, a good hardcopy intro to the rudiments of XML coding