New Markup Language Extends Web Capabilities Beyond HTML's Limits

August 5, 1997
Chris Driscoll

A new Web-based markup language could give EDI the kick-start it needs to reach millions of new users.

The eXtensible Markup Language (XML) is this summer's most anticipated addition to the capabilities of the World Wide Web. Already, cutting-edge developers are plumbing the latest Web innovation for the advantages it might hold for the EDI industry.

The combination of XML with EDI holds the promise of extending the advantages of Web-based EDI through an open standard to the millions of small- and medium-sized enterprises.

Until now, the only way EDI could be done on the World Wide Web was with the addition of complex, often expensive embedded programs that were proprietary.

In fact, World Wide Web boosters feared the collapse of the global network of Web sites into hundreds of different proprietary methods of Web development.

XML is designed to return some of the original openness of the Web, while greatly extending its abilities. SMEs could be big winners as XML makes the Web cheaper and easier to do the types of interactive messaging EDI requires.

A Marriage Made In Cyber-heaven?

"The goal is to establish the standard for future EDI that is open and accessible to all vendors and end users alike," says David Webber, a founding member of the Internet-based XML/EDI Group, an independent information technologies consultant based in Washington. "More importantly, it is not only extendible into the future, but also adaptable to incorporate new technologies," he says.

The XML/EDI Group promotes the development of EDI applications for XML.

Garland Duvall of Atlanta-based Harbinger Corp. [HRBC] is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the language's EDI abilities. "I don't know what benefit it would have to a large company because they would have to write some kind of preprocessor to turn the XML/EDI data into plain old EDI just so they could feed it into their existing translator," Duvall says. Harbinger does not think XML has any short-term effect on its large-company market, but they want to keep an eye on it. Duvall recently joined the XML/EDI Group.


XML Support Is Growing

Among the supporters of XML are Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Netscape, Dow Jones Inter-active Publishing, Adobe, IBM, Lockheed Martin, Novell and SoftQuad.

Most important to the standard's future success is the commitment by Microsoft [MSFT] and Netscape [NSCP] to support XML in future versions of their Web browsers. Microsoft has already issued a beta version of its Internet Explorer 4.0 that supports an XML application for "push" channel technology.

Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft, in a white paper issued in June explaining its support for XML, says the standard allows the Internet to go beyond information access and display, providing for "searching, moving, displaying and otherwise manipulating information currently hidden in contextual obscurity."

The software giant says traditional EDI functions that could be conducted more efficiently and cheaply with the aid of XML include purchase orders, invoices and customer information, pharmaceutical information and payment information.


Java and XML, Like Peanut Butter And Chocolate

"A number of industries, including the aerospace, automotive, telecommunications and software, have been using hub languages to perform data interchange for years, and by this time the process is well understood," says Jon Bosak of Mountain View, Calif.-based Sun Micro-systems [SUNW] in a statement issued in March.

Not surprisingly, XML and Sun's Java are being seen as a perfect fit. Java is an Internet-savvy programming language the use of which Sun offers for free. It has already gained extensive use in the EDI industry.

The combination of Java and XML will allow for the creation of applications that will give a user the ability to enter a database with a search engine that combs text for tagged information that can be plugged into EDI forms.

"The XML browser becomes like a chameleon" says Bruce Peat, of Philadelphia-based Datamatix and a founding member of the XML/EDI Group. "It changes itself based on the message that is being sent." That is part of what makes XML such a perfect companion for EDI, he says.

The XML/EDI Group's Web page at

http://xmledi-group.org is full of information on the XML/EDI connection.

"Because XML allows users to define their own element sets, it enables those interested in electronic commerce to create interactive forms that have clean mappings with databases and other processes," says Martin Bryan of the Glasgow, Scotland-based SGML Center and a member of the XML/EDI Group. "This makes it ideal for EDI."

The European XML/EDI Connection

The European Board of EDI Standardization (EBES), a United Nations committee, has looked at XML as a possible mechanism for its Lite-EDI form-based alternative to traditional EDI, Bryan says. The group working on Lite-EDI is seeking funding from the European Commission of the United Nations for an XML/-Lite-EDI project, he adds.

XML is intended as a versatile "plug-in" for hypertext markup language (HTML). HTML, the super-simple language that made the World Wide Web possible, has caused what can only be termed a computing revolution since it was introduced in the early 1990s.

The simplicity of HTML has been a virtue and a vice, EDI-Web developers say. Its simplicity is responsible for the Web's rapid expansion, in turn making it an attractive marketplace for business. Yet its simplicity comes at a price: HTML is so simple it can be too limited to easily accommodate complex computing tasks such as EDI translation and mapping.


A Better Way Around HTML Limitations

EDI developers have gone around the limitations HTML imposes on the Web by embedding complex programs into Web pages. The value of XML, in part, is that it allows developers to add many of the same dynamic EDI functions using an open, standard markup language.

HTML was designed as a subset of the much more powerful Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML). SGML was developed by the International Standards Organization (ISO), the world's most influential standards development body. While SGML is powerful, enabling programmers to store, manipulate and transfer huge amounts of data, it is too complex for the Internet.

XML was developed by an SGML Editorial Review Board chaired by Sun Microsystems' Bosak, formed in 1996 under the auspices of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an industry association with the mission of enhancing the value and openness of the Web.

The design goals for XML as stated by its creators say XML shall be straightforwardly usable over the Internet; support a wide variety of applications; compatible with SGML; and, easy to write programs which process XML documents. Additionally, the number of optional features in XML is to be kept to the absolute minimum, ideally zero. "The XML solution is system-independent, vendor-independent and proven by over a decade of SGML implementation experience," Bosak concludes. "XML merely extends this proven approach to document interchange over the Web."

(Garland Duvall, Harbinger, 404/841-4334; Bruce Peat, Datamatix, 610/397-0900, David Webber, 301/340-1749.)


LITE Philosophy Behind Euro-EDI Effort

The Lite-EDI effort is designed to develop a method for sending EDI messages over non-dedicated networks such as the Internet. Lite- EDI is specifically designed for use by small and medium enterprises (SMEs) with no specialist, in-house information technology (IT) support staff. Therefore, start-up and support costs must be lower than with traditional EDI.

The basic Lite-EDI concepts are: * the use of simple messages, with few if any optional elements; the use of general purpose messages, rather than ones targeted for specific communities;

(Source: Martin Bryan, The SGML Center)


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