XML moving from quiet Web whisper to scream

Business Report Correspondent

BOULDER — It’s only one letter separated from the new “professional” football league, but XML, or extensible markup language, has quietly been making its mark on the Internet community for more than five years. Quietly, but not slowly.

In contrast to the XFL, developers of this Internet language don’t seem to believe in style over substance. “I would say that the XML (programming) community is almost bigger than the

Java community was at this stage of development,´ said Uche Ogbuji, co-founder of Fourthought in Boulder. “There are people who say it’s the fastest adopted technology ever.”

Ogbuji said the support of companies such as Microsoft, Oracle and Sun Microsystems has been a huge plus to XML. “They are all supporting XML development,” he said.

The XML community got a huge boost last fall when Bill Gates made the following comment during his keynote address at Comdex. “Microsoft and the industry should really build their future around XML.”

Ogbuji and fellow Fourthought co-founder Mike Olson did when they started their consulting and software house three years ago, and they believe a lot more businesses will soon be following in the footsteps of what has been heralded as the “Second Coming of the Web.”

XML was actually developed in 1996 by a dozen programmers working within the World Wide Web Consortium, commonly referred to as the W3C. While the W3C is the group that sets the standards for the languages of the Web, HTTP and HTML, these dozen programmers had something more extravagant in mind.

While HTML — hypertext markup language — allows for the delivery of text, graphics and links, XML is a markup language that wants to go further in assigning values to text, further in substance over style. “It’s more focused on what the data represents than how it is displayed,”

Olson said. “If you want your data to be used, it breaks up the data and presentation so a machine can use it.”

For George Santos, a principal consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers, XML represents a subset of a much larger evolving field of data integration, or a middleware focus. A number of companies, including IBM, have their own middleware tools, he noted. “It’s something that ties two disparate things together,” he said. “XML is a pretty heavy-hitter, but the market is much broader and richer than just XML.”

XML can be used to set styles for a number of documents with one central style sheet. The feature is similar to CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets, a principal component of dynamic HTML. But unlike CSS, it also can be used to display documents in a centralized way outside of Web-based applications. The feature can be applied to both print and intranet publications.

A more immediate application for Fourthought, however, is XML’s ability to work data on a cross-platform basis, both on and off the Web. This potentially allows for stripping off layers of programming that allow computers to talk to each other, Ogbuji said. “I think it’s similar to what happened in the auto industry in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” he explained. “They couldn’t exchange parts, so they developed standard gauges, weights and measures to make it easier for dealers and suppliers to get the right parts.”

With XML, values and styles can be set so when one machine is quoting a price, for instance, a computer requesting the file knows that value is a price, rather than a size, or a weight. That allows for easier integration of databases. “You can get rid of a lot of proprietary software,” Ogbuji said. “XML can bring about a lot of efficiencies and price reduction.”

XML already is widespread in wireless technologies and Web-based instruments such as Palm Pilots. New XML-based markup languages also have been adopted in scientific communities. But XML is making inroads in more established industries such as auto manufacturers and newspapers, as well.

“The Big Three just had a huge announcement saying they were creating their own XML language,” Ogbuji said of U.S. auto manufacturers General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Similarly, the Newspaper Association of America is building an XML-based markup language for publication of classifieds. Pharmaceutical companies also are looking to a common interface.

Olson and Ogbuji, former college roommates, actually began their business three years ago when reunited on a call center project in Peoria, Ill. Once they both discovered that XML was the way to go, the rest was history, albeit recent history.

Their combined abilities in XML soon brought them close to the center of what was then a select group of XML programmers in 1998. They headed to Boulder to start their own company in June.

Today, both Olsen and Ogbuji are monthly XML column contributors to IBM Developer Works. Ogbuji also contributes monthly to XML at Linux World. That kind of exposure has been a blessing to Fourthought’s business lately.

“It used to be largely dot-coms,” Ogbuji said of the company’s client list. In November, Fourthought began offering its services to more brick-and-mortar companies and some non-profit organizations, as well.

Because browser technology has somewhat slowed adoption of XML for many Web sites, Fourthought is adding a consulting side to its business to facilitate adoption for its clients.

“Our client profile is much more of a sophisticated user,” Ogbuji said. “The technology has already been widely accepted on the server side.”

Fourthought offers two product suites. The company’s open source software package, 4Suite, offers an extensive set of integrated XML libraries and a collection of tools for XML processing and object database management. The company’s flagship product, 4Suite Server, is a platform for XML processing, providing a repository and engine for data, as well as a vehicle

for other software protocols.

XML targets any business looking to streamline its communication. It is particularly useful for businesses integrating their databases into supplier-side communications on the Web.

But with the abundance of HTML-based programs, it may be some time before XML makes substantial headway in the market. “I don’t think I pack that mean of a crystal ball,” Ogbuji said. “It’s going to another year or so until it’s widely adopted.”

For Santos, the entire field of integrating enterprise or proprietary software is the place to be today. “XML is one of the strongest elements,” he said. “But it’s going to be a constant evolution, like UNIX. How it ends up evolving is a big question mark.”