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    Friday, May 28, 1999

Are Too Many Players Trying To Shape XML?


XML's enormous potential for integrating applications and letting partners swap business data has Microsoft, IBM and others staking their early positions.

Each is racing to deliver XML servers and parsers or XML extensions to their existing enterprise software. This week, for instance, Microsoft not only announced a summer beta release for its own XML server product (BizTalk Server) but also published a blueprint (BizTalk Framework) for converting business objects and application logic into XML. It also created a Web site (BizTalk.org) that serves as a quasi-independent clearinghouse for XML schema, which describe different kinds of business data.

While experts agree that XML is worth all the fuss, they wondered aloud whether efforts such as BizTalk.org will collide with work already under way at various consortia to define industry-specific XML vocabularies.

The power of XML "presumes there won't be too many schema," said Tim Sloane, an analyst with the Aberdeen Group. "I don't think you want 12 schema from different sources for the chemical engineering industry."

Unlike HTML, the Extensive Markup Language (XML)--a World Wide Web Consortium standard since February--lets users define their own electronic document types.

Widely adopted, industry-specific XML schema should have a powerful effect on application development, Sloane said. For example, a company building a database application could fetch prepackaged XML schema for its industry that describe database fields and data types, he said.

Several organizations already have made progress on creating XML vocabularies.

The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, a consortium that promotes standards for structured data, announced plans this week for its own repository of XML schema, accessible on a site called XML.org.

Meantime, the RosettaNet consortium is about to release a dictionary of 3,600 terms describing components, parts and finished IT products. The dictionary is one key part of RosettaNet's effort to streamline supply-chain processes in the $700 billion IT industry. In April, the group successfully tested the first of its Partner Interface Processes: XML derivatives that define various electronic interactions among trading partners.

The CommerceNet consortium also operates a Web site that is a repository for XML Document Type Definitions.

Asked about the difference between XML.org and Microsoft's BizTalk.org, OASIS executive director Laura Walker said: "We're a nonprofit, international, vendor-neutral organization." She added that OASIS had invited Microsoft to join the group.

Microsoft maintains that its XML initiatives are good for users and the industry, and the company denies it is seeking any proprietary advantage.

"We're playing facilitator here," said Tod Nielsen, Microsoft vice president of developer marketing. "There's nothing proprietary to Microsoft here."

Indeed, Microsoft's penchant for "extending" standard technology with Windows-specific capabilities doesn't, so far, seem to be playing out with XML, experts said.

Although documents that incorporate the BizTalk Framework will work with future versions of Microsoft's Windows, Office, BackOffice and Site Server software, as well as with its Windows NT-based BizTalk Server, the BizTalk schema don't rely on those products, Microsoft officials said at the company's Tech Ed conference this week.

The framework and schema will be driven by the charter members of BizTalk.org, Microsoft said. They include the American Petroleum Institute, Ariba Technologies Inc., Baan Co., Boeing Co., Commerce One Inc., the Open Applications Group, PeopleSoft Inc. and SAP AG.

Commerce One has already submitted both its Common Business Library (CBL) and MarketSite technologies to BizTalk.org's schema repository.

Also at Tech Ed, Microsoft detailed a project, code-named Babylon, that uses XML to link legacy software with applications based on its Distributed interNet Architecture, or DNA. Babylon, based in part on Microsoft's SNA Server for integrating LANs and host systems, will provide bidirectional interoperability between XML-based data and an undisclosed number of formats, such as IBM's MQSeries, CICS and DB2.

But worries that Microsoft will find a way to bind XML to Windows crept into most of the praise Microsoft received this week.

"Is XML the Trojan Horse to provide a high-level abstraction that simply links to a set of ActiveX components?" asked Steve Mills, general manager of IBM's software solutions division. "If so, this starts to look like Active Server Pages, where you get embedded links to componentry that can only be reconciled with a Win32 runtime, and at that point your application is not portable."

IBM itself is highly interested in XML as a data translation vehicle. Along with extending XML features to its flagship DB2 database, sources indicate that IBM will shortly announce major XML and Enterprise JavaBeans functionality for MQSeries, its market-leading messaging middleware.

Indeed, Microsoft and IBM will almost certainly confront each other in their use of XML for enterprise application integration--a prime function of IBM's MQSeries at as many as 7,000 sites today.

For its part, HP has introduced E-speak, a set of software interfaces along with open-source Java software designed to let commerce systems negotiate services on the fly over the Internet.

Among users beginning to consider the benefits of XML, there was cautious optimism that Microsoft and others wouldn't try to co-opt XML.

"It would be great to see more joint ventures vs. one vendor trying to push the technology," said Mark Jedlicki, an engineer at Qualcomm Inc. Microsoft's moves so far look open, he said.

Others worry that too many cooks are stirring the XML broth.

Said Gerry Fitzgerald, associate director for global messaging at pharmaceutical maker SmithKline Beecham: "For every commercial organization proposing a standard, there will be another with an alternate standard."

David Joachim contributed to this story.