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Taking sides on XML

Microsoft's attempt to jump-start adoption of the Extensible Markup Language draws battle lines in the rapidly evolving market.

DALLAS--Microsoft's attempt to jump-start adoption of the Extensible Markup Language (XML) has drawn battle lines in the rapidly evolving market, in some ways reminiscent of the industry split over the Java programming language.

On one side is Microsoft's BizTalk initiative and its BizTalk.org Web site, established this week as an XML design clearing house, developer resource, and repository for XML schemas.

Microsoft has lined up an impressive list of BizTalk backers, including most of the major enterprise resource planning (ERP) software makers--except Oracle-- e-commerce software and service providers like Ariba, and big-name technology consumers, such as Boeing.

On the other side is XML.org, an XML developer portal launched this week by Oasis, a nonprofit consortium. Oasis, which has been building its portal for a year, has been endorsed by virtually all other big-name software makers, including IBM, Sun Microsystems, Novell, and Oracle.

Both camps are attempting to provide a forum for defining XML blueprints, or schemas, for specific industries, such as insurance, health care, shoe manufacturing, and any other industry grappling with data exchange and e-commerce specifications.

XML is touted as an industry-neutral language that has the potential to revolutionize information exchange in much the same way that HTML has forever changed user interfaces. But XML's greatest strength--allowing developers to custom-design tags for defining data exchange--could also be its downfall in a sense, if industries do not reach consensus on what those tags mean.

What XML proponents fear most is that the major software makers will use their financial clout to hijack the consensus-building process, leading to proprietary and incompatible versions of XML schemas that favor a particular vendor's software and architecture.

That's why Microsoft's BizTalk initiative, backed by the industry's richest company, has stirred controversy and raised suspicion among competitors. "Microsoft is creating a vital resource for XML developers to launch e-commerce efforts. That's good and they are leading the way," said Josh Walker, an analyst at Forrester Research. "But they are becoming a lightening rod for launching this site on their own [without other major software makers]."

"We strongly feel the need for a central clearing house for XML standards. For businesses to share information, they need to speak a common vocabulary," said Marie Wieck, director of XML technology at IBM.

"In any new technology you will have a thousand flowers blooming. But I think that having a vendor [Microsoft] defining a space where you need everyone to communicate raises questions about motivation," said Wieck.

Walker said BizTalk in effect creates competitive camps that could splinter the XML market. A better path for Microsoft would have been to back the existing Oasis effort, he said. "The fact that other vendors are already taking part in Oasis would have been seen as a big win for them," he said.

James Utzschneider, director of Microsoft's BizTalk initiative, said the company did evaluate participation in Oasis, but was not convinced the organization could handle the job. "Oasis seems like a fine organization, and they have a good vision. But they only have one employee and are in the process of raising funds to operate XML.org," he said.

"We are not religious about who runs an XML repository, but we want to make sure that the standards group that steps up to the plate...is appropriately equipped to get the job done. And to do it well," said Utzschneider. He added that Microsoft is considering paying Oasis the $100,000 it charges to become an Oasis sponsor. He claims Microsoft has requested a contract from the organization, and he plans to meet with Oasis executive director Laura Walker this week.

And Oasis can use the money, said Forrester's Walker. "Oasis is the clear standout here. But are they capable of handling this? So far, they have not received enough vendor support in membership dues and firm commitments from Oracle and Sun."

In the meantime, Microsoft is reaching out to other software makers in an effort to bolster BizTalk. Utzschneider said he has asked IBM to join the effort as a steering committee member.

One reason for software makers' reticence in joining Oasis may be the speed of the XML market's evolution, which has surprised many in an industry accustomed to working at Web speed. "Some vendors are not ready to jump into Oasis with both feet because this area has moved so quickly that many vendors do not have a complete XML strategy in place," said Forrester's Walker. "And vendors are not ready to sit at a conference table with competitors until they have a firm strategy in place."

Other standards groups will most likely evolve in the coming months. Bob Bickel, senior vice president of products and business development at software maker Bluestone, which sells XML server tools, said there are already "lots of other alleged industry standard groups...such as OAG, OBI, OTP, OFX, XML/EDI, Rosettanet, as well as industry specific ones like the Real Estate Markup Language. Yes, there is diversity and a bit of a land-grab to try to define the way business should be transacted," said Bickel. "But there will never be one definition of how businesses communicate. There are too many specifics related to each type of industry, company, type of transaction, and amount of change in the world," he said.

If any group manages to build industry consensus regardless of vendors politics, all sides win, said Martin Marshall, an analyst with Zona Research. "The big battle is for the formats and schema to be agreed on by vertical industries. Whether Microsoft gets the tribes together of someone else is irrelevant.

"Somebody had to do it. But let's hope we don't run into a situation where there are two bodies warring over standards," he said.