Microsoft lights XML birthday candles

One of the co-creators of XML was in London today to mark the seventh anniversary of the ‘lingua franca’ of information exchange. Jean Paoli now works at Redmond as senior XML architect, and Microsoft used the occasion to publish research on the adoption of XML by UK businesses.

The study, which interviewed 126 UK IT managers, revealed that 59 per cent were explicitly using XML technology (as opposed to implicit use, through the workings of an application), with the delivery of Web services being a major drive for its adoption (a factor identified by 64 per cent), along with the exchange of data with external partners or suppliers (58 per cent) or the exchange of data across internal systems (50 per cent).

Fewer than half, however, were using XML for creating Web content (46 per cent), transformed with XSLT (Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations). In other words back-office data interchange is the main driving force, rather than any user-facing developments

This is a trend identified by Paoli, that Microsoft had to get support for XML technologies on the sever side, such as with BizTalk – it doesn’t make sense to work on the client if the backend can’t support it. Continuing the theme, Paoli highlighted the ‘XML investment’ made in Office 2003, which – he claimed – provides important groundwork for further XML growth.

Seventy-one per cent of respondents said they were now using Web services, of which the majority were between desktop applications and the Internet (60 per cent) and desktop applications and internal se5rver applications (59 per cent). The primary value identified for such services were ‘enabling greater productivity’ (38 per cent) and ‘interoperability’ (36 per cent).

It was the desire for interoperability for data access and information exchange that drove the development of XML.

Looking back to the very early days, Paoli attributed the worldwide success of the text-based markup language to its origins from a small community numbering 50 people or so in the mid-nineties. They were able, he said, to ‘work under the radar’ and yet – with people like James Clarke and John Bozak, from companies like Sun and IBM – they were ‘able to change the way information flows around the world’.

The celebration was slightly early, in that 10 February 1998 marked the first submission of the XML standard to the W3C Internet standards body, but Paoli was also looking ahead to XML’s development.

He was keen that the strengths of XML are more widely recognised and are not lost, for example, amid misconceptions and acronyms for developing specifications, such as wether companies running web services are actually using a SOA (service oriented architecture). ‘XML is a widespread reality,’ he said, ‘but people often get confused by the “latest spec that is not yet done”.’

The word ‘fundamental’ was used often to describe the technology that underpins so much work but which is itself not directly seen or felt. With its concern with the logic of data rather than the physical characteristics of its presentation (for example, via HTML), its presence is easily overlooked.

A theme he constantly returned to was that documents need to be integrated into backend business processes, that a lot of the data we create – whether in text documents or spreadsheets – is not available for subsequent structured analysis.

This probably indicates the future direction for major Microsoft initiatives – the increased blurring between the entering of information and how that information is stored, between data and application.

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