Internet businesses are beginning to rally behind a programming language that advocates think could grease the wheels of electronic commerce.
Extensible Markup Language-XML-would let merchants, financial institutions, and consumers use standard Web browsers to send and receive electronic documents. XML programs promise to smooth the exchanges of information that now rely on expensive, proprietary systems.
XML is being eyed as the foundation for at least two efforts that are gaining momentum in the banking and financial community: Open Trading Protocol and Open Financial Exchange.
Some advocates see XML paving the way for widespread, Internet-based electronic data interchange. "XML appears to be one of those good things for the Internet," said Vernon Keenan, senior analyst at Zona Research in Redwood City, Calif. "It doesn't have a hysterical, divisive backing."
Mr. Keenan said XML evolved from a need to enhance the World Wide Web's common language, HTML, or hypertext markup language. XML builds upon HTML's abilities to present text, images, and graphics on-line.
XML's widespread support was underscored last week when the World Wide Web Consortium, a standards-setting body, adopted specifications for the language. The 243-member global organization, administered in part by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Laboratory for Computer Science, also stewards the HTML standard.
The support for XML among technology providers and potential users contrasts with the "holy wars" that have broken out over other such proposals. Unlike, say, the Java language, which is championed by Sun Microsystems Inc., XML benefits from neutrality.
"The reason XML is winning is that it is simple, powerful, and doesn't offend anyone," said Lawrence Stewart, chief scientist of Open Market Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. The company, which specializes in Internet commerce software, has begun to use XML in the development of on-line catalogues.
"Standards sometimes fail because they give someone a competitive advantage," Mr. Stewart said. "It is to everyone's advantage to start using" XML.
Markup languages such as XML and HTML can complement standard programming languages such as Java or C++. The markup languages can be used to build sets of instructions, called protocols, for when information passes from one computer to another.
Open Trading Protocol, or OTP, grew out of efforts by MasterCard International and its Mondex subsidiary to accommodate a wide range of payment choices in Internet commerce. OTP is supported by 30 companies including Cybercash Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and its Verifone unit, International Business Machines Corp., Netscape Communications Corp., Open Market, Oracle Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., and Wells Fargo & Co.
American Express, Microsoft, and Visa have not jumped aboard. As neutral as XML appears, OTP remains a bit contentious. "At the moment, solutions tend to be proprietary, which is bad news for the consumer," said David Burdett, Internet development director of London-based Mondex International. "The consumer would have to have a different (digital) wallet depending on the software he is using."
XML enables electronic commerce companies to define information in a common fashion so that consumers could pay merchants using any wallet software.
"XML allows you to do put more structure into the documents that are sent using HTML," said Mr. Burdett. "There is no real alternative to XML and I expect it will become a standard in Web browsers later this year."
Just in case OTP does not prove comprehensive enough, the California- based CommerceNet consortium that promotes on-line business has been developing eCo System, also based on XML.
CommerceNet's executive director for research, Patrick J. Gannon, called eCo "a baseline common business language that can be utilized by various market-specific protocols."
CommerceNet, together with Silicon Valley start-ups CNgroup, Tesserae Information Systems, and BusinessBots, recently received a $5 million Advanced Technology Program award from the Commerce Department to further develop eCo.
XML may have the greatest impact on the electronic data interchange market, where proprietary network connections are the norm for exchanging business-to-business purchase information and documentation, and in some cases payments. Historically, EDI has been a big-business phenomenon, and banks have long struggled to play a profitable role in the process.
XML paves the way for smaller companies to begin transmitting and receiving Internet-enabled EDI. "You could go to a Web site and get a page in XML, create an order for some goods or services, and then transfer that page back to wherever it came from for fulfillment," said Philip Costa, an industry analyst with Giga Information Group in Cambridge, Mass.
XML has its origins in standard generalized markup language, or SGML, a decades-old computer code developed by the Defense Department for aircraft technical manuals. Before XML, transmitting SGML documents over the Web required conversion to HTML, and much got lost in translation.
"Italicized text in an SGML document could represent a foreign word, an emphasized word, or a book title," said P.G. Bartlett, vice president of marketing for software maker Arbor Text Inc., Ann Arbor, Mich. HTML would register the italics without retaining which meaning was intended.
XML avoids that flaw by giving computer users access to numerous, customizable data tags using the widely accepted Internet protocol. The approach debuted at an SGML conference in November 1996 and has been accepted by both Microsoft and Netscape for incorporation into their Web browsers.
At Microsoft, developers are deep into XML-based applications including a variant called XML-Data.
Open Financial Exchange, the home banking standard known as OFX that is backed by Microsoft, Intuit Inc., and Checkfree Corp., was initially created in SGML. Technicians at the companies said they are considering employing XML instead.