[From iSource Business, October 2001] For Scott Walker, a business consultant at Verizon Logistics in Irving, Texas, eXtensible Markup Language (XML) represents a tradeoff: Do you want a technology that's quick and easy, or do you want something that meets your specific needs? If you want things quick and easy, XML isn't the answer.
Like a growing number of supply chain professionals, Walker feels that XML hasn't lived up to its initial promise. And, despite assurances that XML will accelerate and simplify B2B communications, there are some nagging problems that won't go away: The lack of a universally accepted standard and massive, cumbersome files threaten to cripple the technology, just as it begins to gain momentum. XML is a new technology, and a lot of bugs remain, says Walker.
And help can't come soon enough, says Jeff Margolese, e-commerce practice director at One Inc., a Dallas-based consulting company. Right now, things are in a state of total destandardization, he says. Over time, we will need to see some form of standardization, but no one is seeing it right now.
XML is a Web-based standard that's designed to help companies conduct an almost endless variety of B2B information exchanges and transactions with customers and business partners. Unlike HTML, which offers a predefined vocabulary for building Web sites, XML lets software developers define their own vocabulary to build systems that exchange data, such as price and product information. By allowing content to be described in fine detail, XML permits automated data exchanges without requiring substantial custom programming. This is in stark contrast to the decades-old electronic data interchange (EDI) technology, which is complex and expensive to use.
Despite its bright potential, a rapidly accelerating standards jumble threatens XML. Although basic XML specifications are set by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the international organization that establishes Web standards, many software suppliers and vertical industry trade organizations have taken liberties with XML vocabulary sets, specifically with the various tags that define key business terms within XML documents. The result: The very process XML was designed to help has become cluttered and complicated by good intentions. While, in theory, XML would make it easier to pass information across the disparate systems in the supply chain, in reality, without better standards, XML is no easier than any other tool, says Sharon Ward, vice president of Hurwitz Group, a Framingham, Mass.-based technology research firm. XML.org, an XML industry portal, has cataloged over 80 industries that are currently working on XML standards. However, there are also variations being generated by assorted trade groups, ranging from trading partner agreement Markup Language (tpaML), which is meant for the exchange of business contracts; to XForms, which governs how Web designers create forms that ask for your name, credit card number, clothing measurements or other personal information. XML has too many standards and sometimes more than one standard for a particular industry, says Sandra Eddy, co-author of XML in Plain English. She believes that most standards initiatives will merge into other initiatives, or they will eventually fade away from disuse. However, the short-term need to support transient standards will hit many organizations in the pocketbook. Many businesses will be forced to spend extra time and money to make major adjustments to their XML processes, says Eddy.