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Microsoft continues XML push

Microsoft is making a big bet on XML, a fact that may worry some and satisfy others who just want the emerging standard supported in Web technologies.

DENVER--Programmers flipping from last night's baseball playoffs to the football game to the latest news may have been struck by an unusual sight--a presentation by a Microsoft specialist on using elements of XML shown via closed-circuit television to numerous hotels here.

That the company had to resort to this is a testament to the interest in the language, which essentially offers a standard means to exchange data across the Net. Evidently, three times the number of people who could fill the 500-seat hall for an XML (Extensible Markup Language) session showed up, necessitating a television follow-up, according to the company.

Microsoft is betting big on XML, a fact that may worry some and satisfy others who just want the emerging standard supported in Web technologies such as browsers so they can do more with the Web. At its annual developer's conference here, the company surprised no one by formalizing an ad hoc effort to build XML into appropriate software, a strategy largely dependent on the forthcoming Internet Explorer 5.0 upgrade, due by the end of the year, according to the company.

Microsoft said it would incorporate agreed-upon XML standards as well as a variety of emerging specifications into its Internet Explorer browser and, as a result, into its operating system software and associated productivity applications as well. The language also will play a key role in the company's effort to meld its application development strategy with the Web.

But Microsoft professes no angle other than to propagate a standard way to exchange information. "XML will do for exchanging data what HTML did for Web pages," said David Wascha, product manager for platform marketing for the company. "Up until now, there has been no standard way to exchange data over the Internet."

The World Wide Web Consortium continues to ponder various options for the XML standard as it evolves. A standard "syntax" was approved in February and the W3C has recommended a standard for a document object model (DOM).

Wascha dismissed the notion that Microsoft is organizing its minions around XML so that it can coopt and extend the standard for its own gain.

"We have just as much voting power in the working group as Netscape Communications, IBM, or any other company," he said. "For XML to be adopted it has to be a standard. If it's not a standard, it's useless to us."

But some analysts believe that by leading the charge, Microsoft can mold the standard for its own benefit, a strategy not unheard of within various industry bodies. Dwight Davis, an analyst with Summit Strategies, noted that the company surely does not want to be preempted on a Web standard with a lot of potential.

A primary goal of XML, which won praise at another recent conference, is to label with tags information throughout a document to make it easier to find and retrieve. Anyone who has come up with hundreds of thousands of mostly irrelevant results on a search engine query can understand the value of such a technology to the Web.

Current IE support in version 4.0 of the browser is limited to a version of XML that was offered before a formal W3C recommendation. Netscape has not yet released a browser that supports the emerging language. Another obstacle to widespread adoption of XML is the dearth of Web development tools that support it. That should change as XML finds its way into more Web-based software, according to industry observers.