Critical optimism

Brigham agrees the lack of standards will cause problems for the technology at the outset: “It’s a lot of work to code XML and [create a DTD]. Until there are standards that everyone can agree on, many companies won’t think it’s worth the effort.”

Tim Brady, vice president of production at Yahoo! says his company has no immediate plans to incorporate XML into its search technology. His main problem with the technology: “it introduces larger pages” that are slower to download.

While downloads of XML pages might be slower because of the more complex language, Venky Harinarayan, vice president of business strategy at Junglee, believes that will be offset by the fact that XML requires fewer trips to the server than HTML. “From a bandwidth point of view, XML is much better because it brings the processing to the browser, not back to the server,” he says. An example: A user gets 15 listings from 15 different sellers in a search for one book and decides to sort by price instead of alphabetically. With XML, that re-sorting is handled within the browser. With HTML, any change in the display is done via a return trip to the server.

Husick is optimistic about XML’s acceptance. He also has a greater financial incentive to see it implemented. Vignette and a group of other companies are developing the Information and Content Exchange (ICE), a specification for packaging information that can be shared online. Vignette plans to implement the ICE technology in its keystone product, StoryServer, the first XML content delivery system.

Using ICE, StoryServer is able to automate the delivery and presentation of information exchanged between businesses, a task that used to dent budgets and strain employee workloads. CNET’s Snap! Online, for example, has to manually set up the protocols and processes for culling and posting all the syndicated information it receives from various news sources. With ICE, the news will be automatically updated and formatted, saving time and money. Another customer, National Semiconductor, uses StoryServer to deliver information more accurately and efficiently to its distributors. Vignette and the ICE Authoring Group plan to submit the ICE protocol to a standards organization in the summer.

While businesses looking to streamline document exchange clearly have a financial incentive to adopt XML, end users will likely enjoy XML’s convenience and efficiency without understanding the technology that enables it. “I don’t see XML as having as dramatic a growth curve among end-users as HTML did,” says Excite’s Spencer. Unlike HTML, “XML is being targeted mainly at backend communications such as exporting catalogs and agent technology.”

Since HTML can exist alongside XML, end users won’t need to rush out and form coalitions with their family members and friends to establish DTDs for Smith family Websites. But XML-powered search engines and search agents will most likely convert end-users to the technology, whether or not they ever use it to design sites of their own.

Pragmatic thinking isn’t necessarily the computer industry’s forte, as evidenced by last year’s rush to market with conflicting 56Kbps modem technologies. This is compounded in XML because no single body oversees the creation of DTDs and tags across all industries, leaving the field open to rogue Web developers. But already a disparate array of industries, academics, and engineers — including direct competitors — are working together to lay the groundwork. If that continues, XML could usher consumer convenience into the next millennium.

When will XML be common?

Depends on whom you ask.

“This year.” -Brad Husick, Vignette
“Two years.” -Graham Spencer, Excite
“More than two years.”-Tim Brady, Yahoo!
“36 months.” -S.T.S. Prasad, Junglee

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