A new markup language may be all that's required to take the Web and electronic commerce to the next level.

The brilliant, churning mess of potential we know as the Internet is about to witness yet another revolution, one that has important implications for Web-based electronic commerce in particular and machine-to-machine information exchange in general. It's a new language for formatting information called extensible markup language (XML). What does this one offer you? Well how does the prospect of inexpensive, off-the-shelf EDI capabilities sound, for openers?

XML is a markup language that superficially resembles hypertext markup language (HTML), the language in which the World Wide Web is written, but XML offers a whole new level of functionality. Where HTML tells a browser how to present text and images electronically using a defined set of tags, XML describes a hierarchy of information and a format for understanding the language while leaving the tag set open for others-groups of users, such as an industry, for example-to define. The primary advantage is that XML makes it possible to describe the content of a document or electronic file rather than just rendering it visually. And it describes this content in a way that is platform-independent. This means a machine reading an XML document can easily see and capture what is in the document, including the structure in which it is configured, without having to know anything at all about the hardware or software platform of the host machine.

This has far-reaching implications for all areas of information exchange because it wipes away many barriers to understanding between human and machine and between machine and machine. XML was created with Web publishing in mind, as a way to give users more flexibility and control over how content isdisplayed. By tagging the content with descriptions so that a browser knows that it's looking at a person's name, or a headline, or a price, the user can set parameters to sort and display that information in ways that mean the most to them.

From that original idea, developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and first published in early 1998, people working with the language began to see far more aggressive possibilities. If you could make a machine understand and sort content, you could build web agents that could search for certain kinds of content more easily. And you could code any kind of data stream to create platform-independent communications among software applications that normally couldn't talk to one another without detailed translator or "glue layer" programming. By minimizing and standardizing this glue layer, XML opens a range of possibilities that is staggering, even in its infancy.

Some view XML as the solution to many of the battles being waged over communication standards and protocols in realms such as the factory floor. The various competing system-level and device-level communications and control busses such as ProfiBus, DeviceNet and LonWorks have caused lines to be drawn among manufacturers. XML could make it possible for factories to keep their legacy systems and have different systems work together by making their communications platform-independent.

Most important for our discussion in this issue of Electrical Wholesaling, XML is expected to take Web-based electronic commerce to the next level and make data exchange procedures such as electronic data interchange (EDI) open, inexpensive and accessible to the masses. If this promise proves true, no longer will EDI be a programming-intensive one-to-one proposition. This would make it easier for distributors to experiment with new market arrangements and new vendors and capture the benefits of electronic communications without having to commit piles of capital for extensive programming to interlink systems.

On the Web, XML promises to make electronic catalog development and management easier, and to make searching far more precise. XML will make it possible for search engines, for example, to search in much more subtle ways for much more specific information, because they will be able to tell the difference between a price and a person's name. The first search engine for finding and cataloging XML and XML documents on the Web went into operation in late July at www.goxml.com. The engine is capable of performing context-based searches on XML documents.

Lest you should think this is all a pie-in-the-sky open standards proposal that will be killed by proprietary interests, keep in mind that Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., one of the most protective of software makers, is imbedding XML deep into its next major operating system release. Windows 2000, which right now is in Beta 3 testing and scheduled to hit the streets in December, uses XML standards to communicate among applications. And Microsoft is hardly alone in its support for XML. IBM, Netscape, Intel, Sun Microsystems and many other major computer vendors have already begun to integrate XML into their programming and development.

Making XML useful and accessible across the international Web requires that the tags used must be freely available. XML describes a format for using tags, but each group of users-such as an industry-must define and agree upon a tag set for their uses. This is done by creating documents describing the internal hierarchy of tags. To give users access to these documents, called document type descriptions (DTDs) and schema, repositories and user groups are being established. The two most pervasive right now are XML.org, which has backing from Sun Microsystems, Novell, IBM, Oracle and GE Information Services; and BizTalk, which was launched by Microsoft and now has backing from J.D Edwards, Merrill Lynch, CommerceOne, Boeing, PeopleSoft and the Data Interchange Standards Organization.

Who will develop the DTDs and schema that eventually will be used in the electrical industry is an open question. Electronic commerce organizations in other industries-such as RosettaNet in the electronics industry-are developing their own standards, which could be transferred to electrical distribution, and more general electronic commerce enablers such as CommerceOne are candidates as well. It's likely there will be more than one standard available before the dust settles.

Prophet 21, Yardley, Pa., is the first of the electrical distribution software providers to announce plans to integrate XML functionality into their systems. Prophet 21 announced its support of the BizTalk Framework platform and is now working on defining XML schemas for use in the distribution industries it serves. Part of the BizTalk partner agreement is that those schemas will be added to the BizTalk public repository where other users can access them for use in communications and electronic commerce.

By making it much simpler for machines of different types, operating on different platforms, to talk to one another, XML will dramatically improve flexibility in the market, says Scott Deutsch, vice president of marketing for Prophet 21. "XML, while it may not be perfect, is really what technology providers need to be able to turn on a dime."

One question for the electrical industry is whether XML will affect the nature and usefulness of the Industry Data Exchange Association's industry data warehouse (IDW). The folks at IDEA said they are just starting to look into the implications. Deutsch of Prophet 21 believes that once the capabilities of XML come to light industrywide the IDW will see the value of integrating them into its data.

Stay tuned to Electrical Wholesaling, and we'll keep you informed as this technology develops. For more information, a glossary and a wealth of links to background documents explaining XML in more depth, go to the Electrical Wholesaling Web site, www.ewweb.com, and look for the Resource Room.

According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) XML will...

*Enable internationalized media-independent electronic publishing;

*Allow industries to define platform-independent protocols for the exchange of data, especially the data of electronic commerce;

*Deliver information to user agents in a form that allows automatic processing after receipt;

*Make it easy for people to process data using inexpensive software;

*Allow people to display information the way they want it; and

*Provide metadata--data about information-that will help people find information and help information producers and consumers find each other.