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September 01, 1997, Issue: 679
Section: Electronic Commerce

XML Grabs Markup Baton -- CommerceNet pilot aims push enabler at EDI, Web catalogs

By Richard Karpinski

Extensible Markup Language (XML), already positioned as a key enabler of content push and online software distribution, will get a major boost this month from an industry group looking for ways to spur Web commerce.

CommerceNet (www.commerce.net), an industry consortium of businesses using the Internet for commerce applications, is launching a major pilot effort this month to explore the role that XML can play in electronic commerce.

The group is embarking on a three-part project that will include building demonstration E-commerce catalogs with XML and setting up live test beds to explore XML's capabilities for creating front-end Web catalogs and back-end links into electronic data interchange (EDI) systems, according to Patrick Gannon, executive director of CommerceNet's Information Access Portfolio and president and CEO of Internet Shopping Directory Inc. (www.shopping-direct. com), Lake Tahoe, Nev.

The effort is one of the first to apply XML to commerce.

Gannon said the XML sample catalogs, which for demonstration's sake will focus on a retail application selling men's shirts, will be ready this month. CommerceNet is drafting member companies for live demonstrations of a larger virtual XML marketplace, as well as a back-end XML/EDI supply-chain management application that it will launch later this year.

The effort is also designed to flush out and encourage the development of XML tools-including editors, parsers and browsers-most of which are still in early beta form, Gannon said.

"We see XML as a key enabling technology, not only in direct commerce applications like catalogs, but also as an underlying technology across the Web," said Gannon, pointing out that XML already serves as the basis for Microsoft's Channel Definition Format (CDF) and Netscape Communications' Meta-Content Format (MCF). Those two implementations of XML are aimed at push applications.

While CDF and MCF use XML to create a language and syntax for describing the makeup of Web pages-for instance, a standard way to tell browsers and push clients how frequently content changes-CommerceNet hopes to create some standard ways of using XML to describe and enable commerce applications.

"What XML becomes is a base enabler for many other infrastructure capabilities that will radically change the landscape of how commerce is conducted on the Internet," Gannon said. "And the key result is that we see a more open and interoperable landscape, thanks to XML."

That's quite an ambitious outlook for a technology that is still in the working group stage in the World Wide Web Consortium (www. w3.org). But XML seems to be gaining momentum almost daily.

In addition to CDF and MCF, XML serves as the basis for the recently proposed Open Software Description (OSD) specification for Internet-based software distribution. XML was used to create the Open Financial Exchange proposal that Intuit Inc., Microsoft, CheckFree and others are backing as a core technology for standardized Internet payments (see chart)

Indeed, backers of XML see it as a technology that begins to solve many of the standards debates that now attract so much attention-in areas such as push, application distribution and Web commerce.

"For the customer, the issue isn't whether they go with Marimba, or Netscape or Microsoft. It's, 'What's the industry standard?' And that standard is XML," said David Pool, CEO of DataChannel (www.datachannel.com)

Pool and his Bellevue, Wash., company are big backers of XML, which plays a major role in DataChannel's ChannelManager product, a platform for managing Internet Webcasting and software distribution.

To understand the way XML works, one must begin with two other, more well-known markup languages, HTML and Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML)

Both XML and HTML-the language in which most Web pages are written today-are based on SGML. SGML is an international standard that makes it possible to define the formats of documents in standard ways, and then make those definitions-formally called Document Type Definition (DTD)-available to others.

SGML is a powerful and extensible method for describing documents, and though some have advocated using SGML on the Web, critics have argued the technology is too cumbersome to be used on a universal medium like the Web.

Instead, the answer for the Web has been HTML, a fairly simple-and most importantly, static and rigid-way to describe hypertext multimedia documents. As the Web has matured, HTML has been stretched way beyond its basic markup roots, and is now being extended with new tags, scripting languages and broad architectures, such as Dynamic HTML, to extend its functionality.

The Problem Is Fit

The problem, critics say, is that HTML remains at its core a display language, unfit for dealing with a Web that is increasingly driven by transactions, database stores and meta-data (data about data)

Coming to the rescue is XML, which, like SGML, can be infinitely extended with new tags and definitions, but is designed from the start to be more manageable and less bulky than SGML.

"XML isn't an end in itself but a system for building markup languages [like CDF or OSD] that tries to be lightweight, easy to use and flexible," explained Tim Bray, co-editor of the XML spec and a consultant at Textuality (www.textuality.com), Vancouver, British Columbia.

The result is that XML will be used by groups of vendors looking to create industry-standard ways of enabling core Internet applications, such as push or software distribution. At the same time, it is available to industry sectors, such as E-commerce companies or health-care companies, to create tags that are specific to their vertical applications but readable by any XML client, Bray said.

For instance, the CommerceNet effort aims to create some standard ways to describe electronic application data, such as product offerings and sale prices, so that shoppers can more easily perform comparisons across different shopping Web sites while those sites retain their unique branding, said CommerceNet's Gannon.

"We'll create some common DTDs that define product templates and give individual merchants the tools to create their own [XML-based] catalogs, making use of those common terms and attributes," Gannon said.

Such industry-specific meta-languages are already common in the SGML realm. The aviation, automotive, semiconductor and banking industries have used SGML to design standard ways to define and structure data unique to their industries.

Copyright (c) 1997 CMP Media Inc.

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