Standard is set; XML awaits search engine for procurement info

Government procurement offices could be the force that pushes the Extensible Markup
Language (XML) onto agency World Wide Web sites within a year.


It's likely to happen that fast because XML can speed up searches for equipment and
best prices. But we'll need new search engines to take advantage of it.


XML 1.0 became a standard last month, thanks to efforts coordinated by the World Wide
Web Consortium. This is the first step away from the Hypertext Markup Language as the
standby of Web documents. As a subset of the Standard Generalized Markup Language, XML is
streamlined for network use. You can read the full specification at http://www.w3.org/TR/1998/REC-xml-19980210.


HTML tells only how to display documents and data; XML can describe them. It makes
networked information easier to find, categorize and customize. That in turn makes it
easier to repurpose files for Web, print, CD-ROM and database use.


Because XML was developed with an eye toward electronic commerce, it's potentially a
better vehicle for tracking files that relate to inventory, prices and parts.


For example, parts numbers embedded in a document could be tagged <partnumber>
</partnumber>, making it easy for search engines to identify them.


CommerceNet, a consortium that promotes Internet EC, is sponsoring an XML Catalog
Project and a search engine capable of supporting all XML tags. For a list of government
offices with ties to CommerceNet, visit http://www.commerce.net/about/showcase/toc_org.html.


Paul Fontaine, program manager for the General Services Administration's Acquisition
Reform Network, said GSA is helping to fund the XML catalog. He said GSA Advantage, NASA's
Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement II and the Defense Logistics Agency's
DLA Mall will be part of the pilot.


"The idea is to have one search mechanism for several catalogs across the federal
government," Fontaine said. "We want to demonstrate how we can use XML to let
all the catalogs talk to each other."


Imagine a procurement officer tapping into an XML-ready government search engine that
visits the catalogs, the Federal Supply Service at http://www.fss.gsa.gov/
and government contractor sites. The officer could scan for equipment, compare prices and
even check inventory just by looking for specific tags.


There are other government XML applications. The National Security Agency's Information
Services Group has been considering XML to manage information flowing over Intelink, the
U.S. intelligence intranet. XML data tags would aid in locating and sharing specific
intelligence data.


Most Web browsers don't yet support XML, but now that the standard is set, they soon
will. Netscape Communications Corp. is working with the consortium on an XML framework for
metadata called the Resource Description Framework.


It would be a single mechanism for organizing, describing and navigating information on
Web sites. XML looks like the future of Web documents, and every agency webmaster can
benefit by learning how to create and maintain XML pages.


A good starting point is the XML frequently-asked-questions list at http://www.ucc.ie/xml/.


Also worth a visit is the SGML/XML Web Page, a reference collection of more than 2,000
documents at http://www.sil.org/sgml/sgml.html.


Shawn P. McCarthy is a computer journalist, webmaster and Internet programmer for
Cahners Publishing Co. E-mail him at smccarthy@cahners.com.


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