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Net standards group puts XML to the test

A major Internet standards body comes a step closer to making a key recommendation that promises to greatly enhance Web programming capabilities.

A major Internet standards body has come a step closer to making a key recommendation that promises to greatly enhance Web programming capabilities.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) announced Tuesday that it has opened its XML (Extensible Markup Language) schema specification to public comment, and is encouraging member companies to begin using it in commercial applications.

Schemas are considered to be a big step forward for XML software developers. They make it easier to develop common vocabularies and improve interoperability between applications as well as data exchange between companies. Currently, XML uses so-called document type definitions (DTDs) to interpret various vocabularies, a technique that is relatively rigid.

XML is a language that enables Web and application developers to create their own industry- or topic-specific languages for the Web. It has been endorsed by a slew of high-tech giants, including Microsoft, IBM and Oracle, as a standard for taking the Web to new levels of performance and functionality.

The language is used in business-to-business applications, where it has been credited with allowing companies to conduct online transactions easily and cheaply with their customers and partners. It also can be used to deliver sound, video and other data across the Web.

The XML schema specification includes three parts.

The first section, the primer, is designed to be a practical introduction to how one creates XML schemas. The second describes the fundamental structures that can be created by using XML schema and defines the rules governing schema-validation of documents. This would let someone build an XML processor. The final part defines a set of simple datatypes, which allows XML software to better manage dates, numbers and other special forms of information.

With the XML schema, Web developers will be able to better define strings of characters in a document, for example, whether a number is an integer or a date. String definition is important in translating business orders sent between companies, which may not use the same XML language. DTDs, which are currently used to translate XML languages, can't easily interpret numbers on a document, creating major hurdles for adoption in e-commerce.

"This is DTDs on steroids," said analyst Mike Gilpin of the Giga Information Group. "It's a better way to pass data between companies."

Gilpin said W3C's decision Tuesday will allow software makers to start including XML schemas in their products.

In the first phase of the W3C process, the working group published drafts or different versions of the specifications. A single specification was then recommended to become a W3C standard. The working group now is encouraging companies to use the specification so it can receive feedback.

After the current stage, the W3C will issue a recommendation, making the specification a W3C standard.

"The W3C believes that it now has a pretty stable specification for XML schema, and it's stable to the point that people should invest time and energy in implementing XML schema and using it in the field," said David Fallside, senior technology staff member at IBM's XML standards technology and strategy division. He also represents IBM with W3C's XML Schema Group.

Fallside said that IBM has been involved in XML from the outset.

"We're clearly trying to move XML and the Web forward...It's not just publishing books and articles and journals anymore; it's passing information around," Fallside said. "DTD is going to be around for a long time...(but) schema is sort of the next generation. With schema you can do pretty much everything that you can do with DTDs, but schema adds a number of capabilities."'s Wylie Wong contributed to this report.