Mad Markets and XML

I’m spending most of this week in Orlando’s giant convention center covering Internet carriers at ISPCON, CLECexpo (for competitive phone companies) and ASPCON (for Application Service Providers).

It’s a lonely beat, but an important one. There are less than 100 reporters accredited to the three shows; many of them are industry analysts or vendors in disguise.

Faced with such a situation, a reporter can either become discouraged (This can’t be important.) or energized (more news for me). I’ve decided on the latter course. Of the three shows here, ASPCON is the newest show, and seems the tastiest from a news perspective.

As software becomes more expensive, the only way to afford it is to share the cost through a central source. This allows lots of people to rent one copy rather than install their own. It’s also more dependable to have key applications managed by professionals, rather than waiting for lightning to strike the PC in your office.

A second trend is the continuing move to create B2B marketplaces. And as time goes by, it becomes apparent that many of these marketplaces are evolving into ASPs. One example at this show was Concord, N.H. based MaxSol, which serves the insurance industry. It turns out that the best way to aid these folks in doing business is to help them get their papers across firewalls. What started as a marketplace is becoming an ASP.

While the headlines are going to outfits like WebMD/Healtheon (with their grand plans for uniting the whole health care complex), small outfits like MaxSol are making real progress with simpler fare. At this show, its headline was a deal with Lebanon Mutual Insurance covering 200 agents seeking data on policies and claim status off an AS400 system. It’s not big. It’s not sexy. But if it works, it improves productivity it justifies the expense with value.

The way to tie all this together is with XML, creating custom tags that replace the forms and formats industries now use for passing paper around to do “bidness.” At @d:tech, I discussed adXML and described its standards-setting process as a model for other industries.

Unfortunately, the model isn’t being used. ASPs have to choose between making their own tags and sharing tags. If you get people used to using your tags, you have a market advantage; therefore, the temptation to avoid the standards process is strong.

Magellan Software in Irvine, Calif. is one of the companies writing tags and doing deals as fast as it can, hoping to create de-facto standards. At this show, it announced a new ASP for the legal profession, while signing contracts to spur the growth of its transportation ASP.

The creation and use of XML tags by ASPs and B2B markets could prove to be one of the most powerful stories of this year, because the tags can replace any business process now done on paper. But the race to the XML market could also prove to be like the Oklahoma land rush; where those who jump the gun on standards (the XML Sooners) get the lush parcels. Those who wait get the leavings.

That’s a story worth watching, even if you’re the only reporter on it.

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