- The Washington Times - Monday, October 16, 2000

Does the Internet run like a well-oiled machine? Hardly. There are kinks, bugs and delays. It may be lightning fast, but in today's business world, that often is not fast enough. In the very near future, however, the Internet could get even faster.
Why? Three letters: XML.
Industry observers say XML will change the way businesses communicate with one another. It will streamline electronic commerce. It will make Web searches easier. It will make Palm Pilots and wireless phones more useful.
They say XML will change everything. And it's already starting.
By the end of this year, 70 percent of business-to-business transactions will involve this new technological advance, according to the Gartner Group, an Internet analysis firm in Stamford, Conn.
Companies are using XML to create one-stop on-line shopping environments, intended to simplify buying on line by eliminating the need to jump from site to site. Some day, industry leaders say, this new code could be used by your refrigerator to tell supermarkets that you are out of milk.
So what on earth is it?
For starters, XML stands for extensible markup language. It's a computer language similar to HTML, or hypertext markup language, which tells a Web browser how to arrange text and images on a page.
XML and HTML look similar, but perform very different functions. Unlike HTML, XML does not create visual representations of data. Rather, XML is a set of rules for structuring data so that it can be read by any computer, regardless of platform. In essence, XML is a medium for transferring data.
And as would be expected, numerous XML-related companies have emerged throughout the region. They're trying to revolutionize the way things are done, raising and spending tons of money and exuding uncanny amounts of energy.
ThinkXML, a Rockville company formerly known as Science Management Corp., was restarted in February and is capitalizing on hefty investments from Draper Atlantic, a local venture firm that deals almost exclusively with early-stage start-ups. ThinkXML is now marketing a product that saves businesses huge chunks of time and money in building electronic commerce infrastructure.
Another new company, Singleshop, was founded by two young guys who simply wanted an easier way to shop on line. Now, with the help of XML technology, this Herndon start-up is on the verge of revolutionizing the Internet marketplace.
Other local companies getting involved in XML include the Chantilly-based InfoShark, which helps companies use XML for B-to-B (business-to-business) data integration, and XMLSolutions, a McLean company that offers support for fast exchange of B-to-B data.

The origins of XML

The first seed of XML was planted in 1996 by members of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which develops tech-nologies, standards and guidelines for the Web. Originally, it was thought that XML would be used to compete with programs like Microsoft Word, Quark or Excel by creating a universal information structure. By the time XML was completed in 1998, however, businesses had become excited about it, realizing the potential for an improved way to communicate with each other.
It's been two years since XML was first introduced, and already B-to-B electronic commerce is starting to feel the effects. Companies have begun creating their own XML languages to communicate with one another, and transactions are becoming easier and quicker.
"Once XML was introduced, people started charging ahead and looking at specs," said Rita Knox, an XML analyst with the Gartner Group.
The numbers don't lie.
According to the Gartner Group, the money spent on B-to-B e-commerce this year will reach $500 billion. That represents about a 250 percent increase over last year and a 1,000 percent increase since the end of 1997. By 2004, the money spent on B-to-B e-commerce is expected to hit $7.29 trillion, or 7 percent of the total global sales transactions, both on line and off.
"My eyes glazed over thinking about the numbers and the dollars," said Barbara Reilly, an e-commerce analyst with Gartner.
"It's wild," Mrs. Knox said. "Everybody's picking up on it."
Tamir Orbach sits in his office, surrounded by computers. To his left is a big PC. To his right is a laptop. Strewn across his desk are various gadgets Palm Pilots, cell phones and in his hand is his newest toy. It's called a Blackberry, and it looks like a calculator. Only Mr. Orbach isn't performing math, he's checking his e-mail.
We can forgive Mr. Orbach if he seems like a "technogeek." He deals with this stuff all the time, and he knows that XML will one day revolutionize the way we all use those gadgets of his.
But until that day comes, Mr. Orbach is paying attention to the B-to-B sector. He's the chief technology officer for ThinkXML, a Rockville-based start-up that is trying to cash in on e-business' eventual universal use of XML.
ThinkXML's premier product, dubbed ThinkXML2000, allows businesses to create and maintain e-business systems using a fraction of the time and cost. Mr. Orbach said if there is one thing that slows the path of companies trying to take part in e-business, it's the time and money involved in building the e-commerce system. ThinkXML2000 will change that, Mr. Orbach said, and open up e-business to more and more companies that use XML.
"I believe that XML will eventually be used by pretty much every business that's on line," Mr. Orbach said. "We found that XML was a good fit for what we wanted to do. The other side of it was that we realized XML was going to be the standard and that if our product was to be good enough to allow companies to participate in the B-to-B world, it would have to talk XML at the end of the day."
Mr. Orbach said Think-XML2000 is most useful to companies that require the use of numerous on-line forms (purchase orders, etc.) on their Web site. It allows companies to change forms and similar applications instantly on line rather than create entire new ones.
For instance, if a company had an existing on-line order form and wanted to add a field requesting another company's address, ThinkXML2000 would allow the first company to create and save an address field once. The field could be added instantly and used an infinite number of times. And through the magic of XML, any computer would automatically know the new field represented an address.
The Rockville start-up Permits-Now, which allows users to apply for and complete building permits on the Internet, is one of ThinkXML's newest customers. Mr. Orbach said that a recent expansion by PermitsNow took eight hours, rather than an estimated 40.

A better way

While XML could transform business-to-business transaction, on-line consumers may also see some positive changes very soon. Two years ago, Bill Neely and Mike Bruce, shunning the crowds and chaos of the mall, did their Christmas shopping on line. It was an imperfect experience for them; too much flipping back and forth between Web sites, too many clicks of the mouse. So they created a company to make on-line shopping easier.
"It was an idea Mike and I had after the holiday shopping season," said Mr. Neely, 29. "As we were going through our individual shopping experiences, we said, 'There's got to be an easier way.' "
The two men founded Singleshop last year and may be on the verge of revolutionizing on-line shopping. They created an XML-based engine that allows consumers to search, compare prices and buy merchandise on line without the need to leave one site. In essence, they outsource on-line shopping for any portal site that wants to offer it.
"Imagine being able to walk through the mall, grab one of everything from each of your favorite stores, and stand in line one time and check out," Mr. Neely said.
So far, Singleshop has attracted more than 70 on-line retailers, including Barnesandnoble.com, Pets.com, ECampus.com and CDWorld. Its engine can be found at portal sites like Christmas.com and Imom.com.
Singleshop executives said that without XML, a one-site shopping environment would be nearly impossible. XML allows information like quantity, price and availability of items from several different on-line merchants to be displayed instantly.
"We really couldn't do the things we do now without XML," said Mark Fletcher, Singleshop's vice president of product development. "Some of the stuff could be done, but it would be a lot more cumbersome and it would require much more work."
But Mr. Neely and Mr. Fletcher said they feel XML is catching on too slowly. Most on-line merchants don't use XML, they said, as they are reluctant to spend money on new system infrastructure and remain uneasy about XML's unproven security.
If on-line merchants use XML, all orders taken on Singleshop's engine would be processed directly through to the back-end systems of the on-line merchant. As it stands now, any orders taken on Singleshop's engine must then be placed manually by Singleshop at merchant Web sites.
"I guess I've been a little frustrated in how long it's taken for a lot of people to adopt [XML]," Mr. Neely said. "As more and more people, particularly merchants, adopt it, we'll be able to just blow out all of the categories."
"It's taking longer than people would expect for it to take off and be universally used," Mr. Fletcher said. "Having 50 percent of our merchants go to an XML feed instead of a Web site-based thing they have now would be a huge advantage to us."

Tip of the iceberg

Singleshop and ThinkXML represent just a small sampling of XML-related companies in the Washington/Northern Virginia corridor. Webmethods, based in Fairfax, is one of the world's leading providers of XML-based B-to-B solutions. InfoShark, in Chantilly, provides software to enable companies to harness XML and quickly and efficiently build B-to-B infrastructures.
Other XML-related companies include XMLSolutions, a McLean company supplying B-to-B solutions, and Ikimbo, a Herndon start-up that helps companies incorporate XML into B-to-B communication. Ikimbo, coincidentally, is located in the same industrial complex as Singleshop.
InfoShark, Ikimbo, ThinkXML and Singleshop were all selected by the Mid-Atlantic Venture Association to take part in their Capital Connection 2000 venture fair last month. The fair highlighted about 60 of the most promising technology start-ups in the region.
"There are some fine, fine companies that are around here," said Ruth Ann Rich, director of marketing for InfoShark. "You can't go into a restaurant without running into the intellectual asset of one company or another."
Because XML is independent of a computer platform, it can be displayed in any manner and on any machine. So Tamir Orbach's little toys will grow increasingly more useful. He'll be able to conduct all kinds of business on his wireless phone, his Palm Pilot or his Blackberry.
Some analysts believe XML could play a role in futuristic technologies that will blow us away. Your refrigerator may soon be able to tell your supermarket when you are out of milk. Your bathroom scale can tell your health club how much you weigh. (OK, so that might not be a good thing for everyone.)
Big companies like Microsoft are trying to corner certain XML markets, while Sun Microsystems, which now employs some of XML's creators, are finding innovative ways to incorporate XML with Java.
"I really do think the sky's the limit," Mr. Fletcher said. "As you open up new technologies, new things come out of it things you can't even predict. Do I think there will never be anything better than XML? No, I think there will. But for the foreseeable future, XML is increasingly going to be used as a method of transferring information across the Internet."

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