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Panel: XML is no panacea

Though some may think XML will clean up the Net's chaos, an Internet World panel says it has a long way to go.

LOS ANGELES--Conventional wisdom holds that the Web is a chaotic mess and that eXtensible markup language--XML--has come to save the day, but a group discussion at Internet World today added a dose of reality about the technology's limits.

XML is related to HTML, the language on which the Web is built, but XML allows for much greater flexibility in describing documents and data. Proponents say adoption of XML--which has already made its way into several applications--will make networked information easier to find, categorize, and customize.

XML won't replace HTML, however. In fact, documents and pages written with XML still need HTML to be displayed in a browser.

Many applications, including the next versions of office productivity suites from Microsoft and Lotus Development, soon will support XML or do so already. For example, a Word document can include XML tags that describe in greater detail the properties of the content. The document's author adds the XML just as he would add standard HTML tags, using the same type of brackets. The difference is, however, that HTML is a language to describe the presentation of a Web page, while XML describes the data that fills the page. More specifically, XML provides the syntactical instructions for creating new tags.

Alan Karben, associate director of interactive development at the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, demonstrated to a crowded room how his publication uses XML to create its own customizable tags for its online news stories. These tags then convey style information to the browser for a more customizable display. In the Wall Street Journal Interactive's case, company names are displayed both in boldface and as hyperlinks.

Even with its early adoption on the authoring side, there are still too few easy-to-use XML-compliant authoring tools, Karben said.

XML first will make a mark as a way to write documents but won't be available as a display language for some time, the panelists said.

"For the forseeable future, everything will be rendered in HTML," said a design engineer for Wired Digital. Documents written in XML must go through a translation process to be displayed in HTML.

XML won't be used any time soon for cutting-edge design, the Wired design engineer said. "Microsoft and others are thinking about it as a way to author, as long as any browser can read it," he said.

XML will be more important as a way to exchange data across file formats within vertical markets, said Microsoft's Adam Denning. For example, the automobile industry could get together and agree upon a series of tags specific to its manufacturing, ordering, and sales processes. Disparate applications then can exchange documents and understand the data's use.