A new Internet Language

How many times have we heard that this technology or that technology will revolutionize e-commerce? Well, get ready for the next big thing: Extensible Markup Language (XML). The buzz is that it’s more than just another new, well…buzzword.

XML 101 Some observers believe that XML is the next version of HTML (hypertext markup language). With XML, catalogers are no longer limited to the HTML coding that describes the physical attributes of a Website, such as headings, lists, and graphics. Now catalogers can get extremely specific in describing product attributes such as price, color, size, and features. For example, XML will allow catalogers to place a tag code for the cost of an item, a code to specify product colors, and tags to identify certain makes of a product. Using XML-based systems, online customers will be able to quickly search for products based on specific criteria, as well as comparison-shop across multiple catalogs.

“XML allows consumers to compare apples to apples, rather than apples to oranges, by adding context to each item,” says John Rosenfeld, electronic commerce operations manager for Lexmark International, a ñ2.5 billion Lexington, KY-based home and office products manufacturer/cataloger. “XML can recognize every piece of data on a product, while HTML just displays the data.”

XML’s most attractive feature is its flexibility, or extensibility. An XML-based electronic catalog can be written once and then displayed across multiple electronic media, including CD-ROMs. In addition, XML-based catalogs can be broken into as many fragments as needed, each distinctly tagged, so that catalogers can restructure data to create customized catalogs on the fly, or pull information from multiple databases, as needed.

Lexmark is working with the U.S. government and Commercenet, a Palo Alto, CA-based nonprofit consortium focused on Internet-based electronic commerce solutions, on the XML-based Catalog Interoperability Pilot program. The program allows 35 buyers from 11 government agencies, such as the General Services Administration (GSA), the Department of Defense (DOD), and Social Security, to compare and buy products across several electronic catalog databases from one Website. Participating government agency catalogs include GSA’s Advantage, NASA’s Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement, and the DOD’s e-Mall.

Catalogs not interested Despite all of XML’s advantages, proponents have yet to convince the catalog industry that it will improve the way they do e-business. In fact, few catalogers contacted by Catalog Age even knew what XML was.

And since XML has yet to become a standard, many firms are reluctant to implement it. “We have yet to find an application for XML to benefit our catalog clients,” says Ken Burke, president of Multimedia Live, a Website developer and marketing services company. “We typically don’t implement a new technology until it’s a standard. But word is that XML is the technology that could take over.”

Both Microsoft and Netscape are now developing XML-compatible versions of their Internet browsers; and Netscape recently announced that it wants to turn its Navigator browser into an XML platform.

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