Sorting Out The XML And HTML Fun

Developers of the Internet didn’t borrow from Bush’s blueprint; as computer gurus are inclined to do, they created connections to at least one obscurely applicable Web site on every subject imaginable. And it all became a reality, in large part, because of Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML, which arranges text and images on Web browsers.

soxhFor all its promise, however, HTML also has shortcomings–the most notable of which is its inability to distinguish between the presentation of computer data and the data itself. This is why HTML is fine for sending electronic documents but ill-equipped for direct data exchanges between computers on the Web, a function crucial to the advancement of Web-based education and other real-time Internet pursuits.

This shortfall has ultimately fueled the demand or a more powerful alternative: Extensible Markup Language, or XML. Essentially HTML on steroids, XML employs identifying tags that describe Web information within a software program. Those tags allow, for the exchange of information without the need to reformat data so that it can be retrieved and viewed.

A programmer, for example, could label a hidden tag “customer service” to inform a computer about the nature of data sought by visitors to a training Web site that offers courses on customer service. That sounds simple enough–and it is to computer programmers. But it takes Internet technology a big step forward: While HTML tells computers how to display content on the screen, XML describes the meaning of that content.

When definitive XML identification codes are present, information is easily interpreted and utilized by computers, which allows businesses to automatically exchange information across the Internet. They can place orders with suppliers, share customer information with business partners, or disseminate course mate- rials to students in an online forum.

XML also enables the typical consumer to conduct more efficient searches on individual Web sites. With HTML, users type keywords into a search engine that typically provides a potpourri of choices. But with XML, a user can type specific keywords into predefined categories to produce more precise results. That simplifies matters for trainers–or workers seeking training on their own–when they scour the slew of online learning portals for course offerings that meet their needs.

“It makes for a much more powerful and flexible system,” says Ryan Danielsen, a software engineer with Harbinger Partners in St. Paul, MN.

Perhaps most important, proponents say, XML allows software developers such as Microsoft and Sun Microsystems to employ new distributed computing strategies. They can essentially shift a host of operations from the hard disks of personal computers onto the Internet– meaning everything from spreadsheet programs to software services is on a powerful computer network accessible via the Net. That makes it possible for users who have a wireless Internet connection to tap into the power of their computers whenever, wherever. Workers on a factory floor, for instance, can use handheld devices to log on and retrieve training material from myriad sources as they need it. This bolsters the “just-in-time” training power of the Internet, which online learning advocates have vigorously touted.

As with any new development, XML has an uphill climb toward widespread acceptance. Convincing corporate America to invest the time and money needed to implement a new computer language has proven an exhaustive effort. But most experts agree that its use, in combination with other technologies, is the obvious next step toward creating an Internet that doesn’t discriminate between different computers and software.

And it’s about time. While all the complexities of the Web may not have been part of his original vision, an XML-driven Internet is just what scientist Vannevar Bush was looking for some 55 years ago.

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