Technology is full of acronyms—enough to make a high-tech alphabet soup. This is especially true in the case of Web design. While all Web sites use HTML (Hyper Text Mark-up Language) in one form or another, XML is sort of the next step up for small businesses.
While XML might sound like the next big thing, it has actually been around for a while. To ensure that data could be more easily shared, an eleven-member working group in the mid-1990s created XML as a markup language as an expandable version of SGML, the Standard Generalized Markup Language, which itself dated back to the 1960s. Markup languages are, in general, mechanisms for representing data in text-based files, and XML’s simple, flexible syntax has made it the preferred way for representing data.
The question is whether XML is something your small business Web site might need? Possibly yes, but if so don’t worry. Chances are if you need it, it is already part of the technology you have in place. And it is something that is easy to integrate to an existing business Web site.
XML is essentially part of the underlying communication online. When there is communication between two Web sites, XML tags the key attributes. This allows companies and site operators to set data definitions for the trading of information. In other words, XML makes sure that all the various companies are on the same page when sharing information. In this way XML is akin to a digital glossary. Without it, data couldn’t be easily shared between groups without having to reformat that information at each step of the process.
Moreover, HTML—the code that Web pages are written in—is also a subset of SGML, just like XML. However, modern Web development focuses mostly on XHTML, an XML-compliant subset of HTML that was created partly thanks to the difficulty in verifying the validity of HTML documents. Using XHTML enables Web pages to be validated like XML documents above, meaning you can run tests against and ensure a Web page is valid before it ever goes live.
Lastly, for XML to work standardization is highly important. This is where companies such as OASIS fit in. The international not-for-profit non-governmental organization works with the development, convergence and adoption of e-Business standards, including XML. While anyone can take XML and make their own extensions, doing so without standards could lead to chaos on the Web. But with the proper standardization within industries, XML can enable different company’s servers to directly interact with other companies over the Internet, use XML messaging to define, validate and exchange data.