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What, XML again?

This ever-morphing standard puts decision makers in a bind. What, XML again? This ever-morphing standard puts decision-makers in a bind.

Bill Gates: “We are in a new era defined by the XML protocol.” TechEd, June 14, 2001

World Wide Web Committee: “The XML Schema recommended today provides a new platform for the advancement of e-commerce.” May 25, 2001

Alfred E. Newman: “What, me worry about XML?”

Murray Furbish: “We are studying the possibility that XML may provide our IT department with a useful tool to exchange data.”

Occasionally a very loose comment can sit in the back of your mind until it suddenly rushes forward and demands to be given some thought. A few days ago a friend of mine casually asked the question, “So what if you just ignored XML?” At the time I shrugged because we were on the way out of the office. Later the question jumped into my head because a client called to say they had decided to pull their team off an XML pilot project.

“Why?” I asked.

“We’re not ready for XML. Or XML isn’t ready for us. I’m not sure. I do know we feel that XML needs to settle down before we should get serious with it.”

“Uh, what do you mean by settle down?”

There was a longish pause and I could hear static on the phone line. “Every time we think we have the scope of XML down–how it could affect us–we learn about some new protocol, variation, whatever. It’s a moving target, and I guess we’re not very good at hitting moving targets.”

Okay. That’s another take on XML, obviously different than the four comments at the opening of this column. As they say, there are some questions on which rational minds may disagree. XML may be the most important general protocol for enterprise-level business since HTTP. Or not. Or to some degree.

Meanwhile, the millwheels of industry turn and more XML appears: new products, new protocols, new standards, new coalitions, and new projects. I can see all this happening. So can thousands of colleagues and IT folks. We all struggle to interpret, evaluate, and make decisions. If you’ve been in the computer industry for about 20 years as I have, you’ve seen these potential turning points many times: PCs on every desktop, PCs as servers, Local Area Networks, the Internet, client/server computing, object orientation, the Web (and so on). As obviously important as some of these are (and were), many of them didn’t seem so important at the time. And of course there were many “important” technologies that didn’t quite make it–the early handheld computers, artificial intelligence, early voice recognition (and so on).

In business we’re accustomed to reacting to competition, and more often than not to some relatively concrete issue–pricing, new products, advertising. Those same pressures are passed on to IT (or should be), but we get a surcharge–a computer/communications industry that frequently makes momentous technological changes. Sometimes these changes, like the PC revolution or Local Area Networks, occur over as much as a decade, which even so is quite rapid. However, no small number of these tectonic shifts also reach their peak in just two or three years, such as the Web, Java, and now–maybe–XML. So, as we all know, speed of interpretation, evaluation, and decision making is important.

There we have it–possible major changes that demand our organization respond, which take place relatively rapidly, but with no clear picture of the ultimate outcome. Every year or two these changes seem to appear, and as things often go, there might be several clamoring for attention simultaneously.

I’m not whining about this, but some sympathy is in order for the people who have to wade into the details of technologies like XML and come out the other side with the “right” decisions for their organization. From time to time we have to remind ourselves that the current world of IT is historically unique. Issues of pace, complexity, and impact are magnified far beyond what even our grandparents experienced.

So perhaps like my client who cancelled the XML project, we have to jump out of the pool once in a while, dry off, and rest. Then jump back in again if the water’s good. Meanwhile the marathon swimmer has been churning along. Who’s to say which one will finish (if there is a finish). I do know that revisiting any and all of the “major new technologies” is a requirement. So yes, it’s XML again–new things are happening–and like this column, some topics just have to reappear.

Editor at Large Nelson King also writes Pursuits monthly for ComputerUser magazine.

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