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Report on E-business

XML extends business horizons

Friday, May 25, 2001
Special to The Globe and Mail

Bob Murray wants chip designers to design chips, not edit documents.

But the manager of technical communications at PMC-Sierra Inc. in Burnaby, B.C., estimates the chip-design firm's 750 or so designers spend a quarter of their time creating documents. Mr. Murray hopes to cut that by about 10 per cent by using extensible markup language (XML).

XML will let PMC-Sierra's chip designers enter information about a new integrated circuit once in a master database. From that data, he plans to generate on-line documentation that PMC-Sierra customers can search and read on the Web, as well as paper documents.

It will be possible even to tailor material to individual customers' needs. "It should completely remove formatting tasks from the designers' lives," he predicts.

Meanwhile, Canadian customers of Atlanta-based United Parcel Service of America Inc. will soon be able to use XML to incorporate information about shipments directly onto their own Web sites.

Wayne Bosch, director of e-commerce for United Parcel Service Canada Ltd. of Mississauga, says e-businesses using UPS can include links in their Web sites to a UPS site where customers can find out where orders are.

In the United States, UPS already has begun using XML to deliver this information to customers so they can make it part of their own sites. UPS will offer the technology in Canada "very shortly," he says.

XML has been talked about for several years but only recently have the first real-world uses of the language begun to surface. The earliest adopters were the largest firms -- few of which are in Canada -- but XML is being used by a growing number of Canadian businesses.

Meta Group Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based technology-research firm, predicts that in three years, 95 per cent of the world's 2,000 largest companies will be using XML across their operations.

XML is closely related to hypertext markup language (HTML), used to design most of the content of the Web. Both come from a common ancestor, standard generalized markup language (SGML).

SGML was designed to make it easy to adapt documents to different purposes and formats. It does this by identifying elements of the text -- such as titles and paragraphs -- with tags embedded in the text. HTML handles the content of a Web page in much the same way. XML also uses tags but it goes further, as the extensible part of its name suggests.

In XML, you can create tags for specialized purposes. Thus, UPS may tag one bit of information as a package's waybill number and another as its current location, so an e-merchant's Web server knows how to present the information to an end customer.

Or an invoice formatted using XML could have tags to identify the invoice number, the purchase-order number and the amount due. Send that invoice to a customer, and software on the customer's computer could read the invoice and know how much to pay, to whom and for what. So XML can be used to automate business transactions over the Internet.

This is akin to what electronic data interchange (EDI) has done for many large businesses for years. The difference is that EDI required proprietary networks and data formats; XML is an open standard that relies on the Internet and is accessible to organizations of all sizes.

Of course, it's not quite that simple. By letting those who use it define their own tags, XML becomes very flexible, but it also risks creating a Tower of Babel. To use XML for a specific purpose, everyone involved must agree on a common set of tags.

Many XML vocabularies are being developed for different purposes. One is electronic business XML, or ebXML, meant to be a common basis for companies to conduct business transactions over the Web. The specification -- a joint effort of the United Nations Center for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT) and the U.S.-based Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) approved in early May -- sets standards for XML's handling of common business transactions.

The Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI) specification, backed by a consortium of technology vendors, aims to create uniform XML rules for businesses to describe their services, discover other companies' services and conduct electronic business among themselves.

For instance, suppose you need to buy gold. Today, you could use a Web-search engine to find references to gold, but they'd include tales of the California gold rush as well. UDDI would let you look specifically for references to gold as a product for sale.

Specialized vocabularies can be used for other purposes. For instance, e-Manufacturing Networks Inc. of Burlington, Ont., is spearheading a plan to let industrial robots and automated machine tools communicate using XML.

Today these devices use proprietary languages, making it hard to connect equipment from different suppliers, says e-Manufacturing chief executive officer Tom Gaasenbeek. "Our goal is that all communications eventually will be in XML."

Meanwhile, XML is also being used like SGML, to create documents that can be adapted easily to different formats, including electronic ones.

In the University of Montreal's Digital Information Management program, Professor Yves Marcoux is teaching students to use XML for purposes such as publishing learned journals and scientific articles in print and electronic formats. He says XML has all the advantages of SGML plus wider availability and lower cost because common Web browsers understand it, and tools for creating XML documents are readily available and affordable (the university uses XMetaL XML document creation software from Toronto-based SoftQuad Inc., which costs $500 a user).

XML is achieving a critical mass that SGML never had, says Rick Makos, president of Infrastructures for Information Inc., a Toronto company whose S4/Text software lets people create XML files using Microsoft Word software.

"People are starting to see that it has not only huge technology advantages, but there are huge cost advantages within a business."

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