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Info exchange spec based on XML

The new ICE protocol's authors say it will make it easier for Web publishers to exchange content and for firms to distribute their online catalogs.

SAN FRANCISCO--Authors of the new Information & Content Exchange protocol today released the specification for version 1.0, which they say will make it easier for Web publishers to exchange content and for companies to distribute their online catalogs broadly.

The Information & Content Exchange (ICE) effort, initially announced in January by publishing software firm Vignette, is based on XML (eXtensible Markup Language), which is touted as the base for industry-specific tags to facilitate Internet commerce.

ICE defines a set of XML tags that provide standard ways for companies to exchange information--editorial content, catalog listings, or real-time financial data. It is designed to form and manage relationships between the syndicator or content distributor and subscribing companies, which may use the information directly or incorporate it into their offerings.

"ICE is designed to expand the market for content so it's easy to syndicate," said chairman of Vignette Ross Garber, noting that today the Net is built for people to communicate with computers. The future lies in computer-to-computer interactions, he contended.

ICE could be used by a Web service that collected PC prices from multiple Internet storefronts, then published them on a single site. Using ICE, data on models and prices at hundreds of stores could be collected automatically computer to computer after the comparison site reached agreements with individual PC stores. Today that would require customized connections between the comparison site and each individual store.

Garber described ICE as a transport mechanism, a way to move data from a variety of industries--PCs, pharmaceuticals, or syndicated content.

The ICE working group intends to submit the protocol to an industry standards body but declined to say which one. Candidates would include the World Wide Web Consortium, which bars submitters from talking about their entries until the W3C has officially accepted them; the Internet Engineering Task Force; and CommerceNet, which is already working on other XML standards.

In addition, three companies announced ICE-based software tools that will let companies distribute their content to subscribing businesses--Vignette, News Internet Services, a technology subsidiary of NewsCorp; and ShiftKey, which already ships content syndication tools. In addition, INSO, which makes content management tools like Vignette's, has indicated interested in supporting ICE.

Vignette's new product, Vignette Syndication Server (VSS), enables online businesses to build affiliate networks that will distribute its electronic goods and services. It requires companies distributing content to have Vignette's flagship StoryServer 4 software for managing content. VSS is due to ship in 90 days for prices that start at $50,000.

News Internet Services's C/3 Syndicator System, due to ship in the first 90 days of next year, is designed for companies that, like itself, pull content from multiple sources, then syndicate it to their own subscribers to publish.

ShiftKey's SiClone syndication or content distribution software will support ICE in its next version, due to ship by year's end. The start-up prices its software at $1,500 per user, with volume discounts.

E-commerce analyst Vernon Keenan, of Keenan Vision, worries that ICE is too closely tied to Vignette to win wide adoption, suggesting that an independent marketing effort to reach Vignette competitors may be needed.

"In an effort to appear neutral and standards-loving Vignette has turned ICE into more of a paper tiger rather than a commercial protocol that independent software vendors can add to their products," Keenan wrote in his analysis.

To succeed, he thinks ICE must be built into large Web site application servers as a standard protocol--and Vignette's position as a leading vendor for large publishing Web sites should boost its chances.

"ICE is a perfect example of an industry protocol that XML was developed for," said Jon Bosak, credited as the creator of XML and chair of the W3C group overseeing XML standards efforts. "It's a cooperative industry initiative, is cross-platform, and utilizes a rapidly developing infrastructure."

He listed other examples of XML-based languages, mostly for specific markets, including a Chemical Markup Language (CML), Channel Definition Format (CDF), a handheld device markup language, Precision Graphics Markup Language backed by Adobe Systems, and Open Financial eXchange (OFX) for moving financial data and backed by Microsoft, Intuit, and CheckFree.

Another XML-based initiative comes from Veo Systems which earlier this month released its Common Business Library of XML tags to describe common business documents like invoices, purchases orders, and catalog listings.