Extensible Markup Language accomplished the seemingly impossible this year: It brought bitter software enemies together to speak the same tongue.
Rivals such as Microsoft, Oracle and IBM flooded the wires and airwaves with praise for XML, a software standard that allows the exchange of information over the Internet. All these companies had the same dream--creating Web-based software and services--and XML was a core piece of their diverse strategies.
XML is an early Web standard for information exchange that proponents say will reshape business-to-business communications. It not only allows customers to easily and cheaply conduct online transactions with their customers and partners, it also delivers sound, video and other data across the Web.
In 2000, XML was the great peacemaker. Rival software companies put their competitive differences aside to pursue high-profile alliances and work on potential new Web standards. Those standards helped further their collective goal--to make XML the preferred language for companies communicating online.
These joint efforts have eased fears that companies would merely work XML into a form that suited only their purposes--a move that many analysts agree could irreversibly damage XML's appeal industrywide and stymie many technology innovations.
"Going back a year ago, if you said Microsoft, IBM, Ariba, i2 (Technologies) and others were going to work together to drive establishment of new (XML standards), people would have thought you were woefully optimistic, if not insane," said Peter O'Kelly, an analyst at Patricia Seybold Group.
More companies have started to work XML standards into their corporate systems, signaling the broader acceptance of the technology.
"It's getting mainstream, beyond the tire-kicking phase," O'Kelly said.
Companies such as Microsoft are placing a lot of currency in XML. The technology is seen as the key to a new future, one in which customers won't have to buy and install software on a personal computer but will be able to download what they need over the Internet. Such a vision, companies say, could be revolutionary for the industry, eliminating installation problems, maintenance costs and other upgrade concerns.
While the vision has long been touted by Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, IBM and others, Microsoft jumped on the bandwagon over the summer with a two-year plan to release new software products that link the Windows operating system closer to the Web.
Oracle earlier this month announced its own plans to help companies deliver services over the Web.
While the competitive market touted new and improved products that incorporated XML technology, big thinkers such as the World Wide Web Consortium labored to improve how the technology worked. Software companies also collaborated to create potential new XML standards aimed at simplifying the building of Web services.
Microsoft, IBM and others proposed several potential Net standards, including Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), which allows businesses to link different computing systems over the Internet to conduct online transactions.
Microsoft and IBM also worked with Ariba to propose a Web standard and initiative that will let businesses register in a Web directory so they can advertise their services and find one another easily online. More than 130 companies, including Sun, HP and Commerce One, have joined this standards effort, called Universal Description Discover and Integration.
Other plans are afoot. A consortium of technology companies, called Oasis, made some headway in creating a United Nations-backed set of guidelines that will serve as a common way for businesses in different industries to use XML. Oasis and a U.N. technology group have said the project, called Electronic Business XML, or EBXML, is two months ahead of schedule and will be completed in March.
The standards effort isn't without a few bumps, however. Microsoft has released its own set of XML guidelines, called BizTalk Framework, which some Oasis members say may compete with the EBXML effort.
David Turner, Microsoft's product manager of XML technologies, said the company will support EBXML if customers demand it, however.
The W3C continues to work on various new XML standards. In October, the Internet standards body recommended its XML schema specification--a big step forward for software developers.
Schemas make it easier to develop common XML vocabularies and improve compatibility between software 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.
Earlier in the summer, the W3C proposed a new XML standard, called Xlink, that allows Web developers to add links to XML documents.
The W3C is also beginning work on creating an XML standard that defines a common method for businesses to handle and route data. One of the technologies the W3C is considering is the SOAP technology that Microsoft, IBM and others created.
While SOAP may compete with part of the EBXML standard, executives from software companies involved in standards efforts say they will work to make the two technologies compatible.
In the coming year, analysts and company executives say more XML standards, such as the XML schema work, will be finalized.
"This year has been the year of infrastructure and the whole notion of Web services," said Bob Sutor, IBM's program director for e-business standards strategy.
Next year, more businesses will build XML into their computing systems, said analyst Uttam Narsu of Giga Information Group.
"As standards mature and vendor support for XML deepens, the adoption rate of XML will accelerate beyond pilot projects," Narsu wrote in a recent report.