Why XML Is Important

What has made the Internet useful to hundreds of millions of people is that it uses standards for the presentation of content. No matter what sort of content you have, once you present it using hypertext markup language (HTML), people all over the world can read it using a web browser. Having a standard like HTML has caused a genuine revolution.

Extensible markup language (XML) is an evolution of HTML. It brings in vital new standards for how we organize our content. But why do we need new standards? Information overload is why.

There are presently 2.5 billion documents on the Internet, growing at 7.5 million per day. If we include intranets and extranets, the number of documents rises to an incredible 550 billion. If we don’t agree on common standards for the organization of all the content in these documents, we face chaos and inefficiency in how we create, organize, find, and digest information.

Someone once famously described the Internet as a great library with all the books on the floor and the lights turned out. Well, XML is about turning the lights on and putting the books on the shelves in an organized manner.

XML is more than just putting “books” on shelves. It’s about looking at how content itself is structured and trying to achieve common rules. It looks at, say, “morning notes” from the financial industry and says: “What are the key sections and/or headings within this piece of content?” If the financial industry decided to implement an XML standard, then it would come up with an agreed-upon standard by which all morning notes would be created in the future. Morning notes would then have a common template that would have fields like: Organization Name, Date, Company Symbol, Analyst Name, Buy, Sell, and Profit Warning.

Now, what good is all of this to the person who uses the Internet? Well, what it means is that XML standards can help us find the right content faster. For example, if I’m a fund manager, I can find the two “Sell” morning notes on Company X over the last 12 months, rather than hundreds of general morning notes.

Like all standards, if XML is not used widely, it loses its central benefit standardization. But there are a number of indications that XML is gaining wide acceptance.

An XML standard is emerging with regard to how the world’s new industry organizes its news. Reuters, Agence France-Presse, Business Wire, UPI, and Dow Jones’s WSJ.com have agreed to use the standard. The United States Patent and Trademark Office has agreed to implement an XML standard for dealing with patents. Continental Airlines is implementing an XML standard to improve the production and management of its technical manuals.

Bill Gates and Microsoft are getting behind XML. At the Microsoft CEO summit in May 2000, Gates predicted that XML would usher in “the third phase of the Internet.” He talked about how it was a dramatic change for the software industry. “It’s really about connecting things,” Gates stated. The major Microsoft .Net initiative, for example, uses XML standards.

By establishing standards, the Internet is transforming our ability to communicate using computers. XML is about establishing standards for what we communicate using computers. Those organizations and industries that embrace such standards will only thrive in the information economy.

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