Although some might be unwilling to admit it, when Microsoft Corp. talks, people often listen. And right now the three letters on the tongues of many at Microsoft appear to be XML, as its venture with the consortium of companies involved in XBRL.org indicates.

David Turner, product director of XML, or "extensible markup language," at Microsoft, says the software behemoth's decision to spearhead efforts to expand XML "was not mandated" from the top. "It was more of a grassroots effort, where people inside and outside Microsoft evangelized about XML. It offers a compelling way to solve a communication problem on the Web."

This problem, says Turner, is exchanging information via disparate systems over the Internet. With XML, he says, anyone can exchange and analyze data using virtually any application.

The Redmond, WA-based company's interest in XML isn't just a passing fancy. Microsoft's history with XML goes back to the inception of the language three years ago. The company is an original member of the group formed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to set standards for XML.

"Microsoft realized the benefits of XML over three years ago," says Turner, who also serves as Microsoft's representative to W3C. "We've been working aggressively in terms of developing standards with the W3C and implementing XML support, end to end, for our products."

Actually, Microsoft is somewhat shifting its approach, suggested Mark Wesker, president of Sequoia Software Corp., Columbia, MD, in an interview with BTN. Many of Sequoia's competitors "have to start over" and write programs in XML "because they can't retrofit their existing software," Wesker says. Sequoia, by contrast, began in XML when creating its software (which aggregates companywide information).

"Microsoft is creating tons of software around XML," he said, adding, "(Bill) Gates is no dummy. He knows if he writes a new generation of pure XML software, he will have products that are more flexible."

Just how aggressively is Microsoft pursuing XML? Turner borrows a colleague's rather gory metaphor to explain: "If you cut open any Microsoft product today, it bleeds XML."

XML runs through the veins of Microsoft's developer systems, off- the-shelf applications and Web server sites, like MSN, he says. Because it is not an application per se, the company hasn't really kept tabs on XML's effect on Microsoft's bottom line.

"This is not a product that will offer a new revenue stream but something to make sure our product offerings remain compelling to customers."

While all Microsoft customers will share in the capabilities of the language, Turner says XML is something businesses will use more often than consumers. The latter will feel XML's effects in the form of universal plug-and-play functionality on Windows Millennium edition. This will allow PCs to instantly configure a newly installed peripheral or card. He also says XML will enable more interplay between PCs and wireless devices.

It's at the business level, however, that XML struts its stuff, enabling companies to exchange diverse forms of data more easily.

"There will be a dramatic impact on the financial industry," Turner predicts. "Up until now, the exchange of data has been a nightmare. It came down to simply re-keying." That adds up in terms of cost, time and accuracy. "There is a huge desire among corporations to aggregate, exchange and analyze this information. This will happen in a more reliable way than in the past."

Moreover, he sees XML as a unifying force in the computer industry.

"Now more than ever before, you're seeing a higher degree of cooperation going on in the development of XML and XML-based standards (like XBRL.org) among major vendors. The new mantra for vendors (in the age of XML) will be 'cooperate on standards and compete on implementation.'"

Orla O'Sullivan also contributed to this story.

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