After several years of research and development, 1999 was the year Extensible Markup Language (XML) was commercially born as software makers, big and small, embraced the technology and began building it into their products.
XML is a Web standard touted as having the potential to revolutionize the way businesses exchange data. It not only allows companies to easily and cheaply conduct online transactions with their customers and partners, it also delivers sound, video and other data across the Web.
Businesses that use cutting-edge technologies, such as General Motors, have even begun incorporating XML into their corporate systems.
"1999 was the year that XML stepped away from its research background and became a real technology," said analyst Phil Costa of Giga Information Group. "Now it's got the support of the software vendor community, as well as the user community, who've proven its usefulness in their strategic projects."
XML is a variant of HTML, a language used to generate Web pages on a computer. Unlike HTML, which has a predefined vocabulary, XML allows developers to define their own vocabulary for data, such as price and product. The result is more efficient data exchange and better Internet searching capabilities.
Standards organizations, like the World Wide Web Consortium, and software firms, however, are still fine-tuning the technology--and much work remains. The biggest issue facing XML now is whether software firms, like Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, and companies in specific industries, such as banking and health care, can put their competitive differences aside and agree on common formats to use XML.
The fear is that software companies will push for incompatible versions of XML that best fit their own product strategies, which could hurt XML's cross-industry appeal.
"It would be a great boon for society if everyone can agree on a common format for XML," said Meta Group analyst Craig Roth.
Microsoft and a nonprofit consortium called Oasis, which includes IBM, Sun and Oracle, launched competing efforts to create a set of guidelines for specific industries to define their XML vocabularies--and define a common method for businesses to handle and route data to each other. They also launched portal sites designed to serve as repositories for the XML vocabularies and resource centers for businesses who need information on implementing XML.
Microsoft in early December released its set of XML guidelines, called the BizTalk framework. Oasis is developing its own guidelines, called Electronic Business XML (EBXML), and plans to deliver a final version in 15 to 18 months.