October 19, 1998
Everyone's making up markup languages for fun and profit
Wannabe Web stars know that the surest path to Internet fame and fortune is to create a standard. Best of all is an open, cross-platform standard that's been adopted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
A W3C-approved standard is to a Web company what an Oscar is to a movie star: It's got loads of cachet and leads to fat contracts.p>
The next-best thing is to propose a standard to the W3C. No matter that the W3C may not get around to ratifying the standard for years -- it's enough to be able to say it's been proposed.
One of the most popular ways to play the standards game is to propose a new markup language.
Net pioneer Mark Pesce showed the way with his Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) a few years ago. There's no denying that this is a cool technology -- who doesn't enjoy spending an afternoon watching their browser slowly render virtual shopping malls populated with blocky 3-D characters?
The world is still waiting for a practical use for VRML, but that's beside the point. It's three-dimensional, it's a standard -- and for a while everyone was talking about it.
Talk of the town
You don't have to be a brilliant computer scientist to create a markup language. Now, thanks to the Extensible Markup Language, or XML, anyone can create a specialized markup language with ease.
This point was brought home recently by Motorola's announcement that it has developed an XML-based markup language for encoding voice-activation commands, which Motorola is calling VoxML.
With VoxML, companies will be able to create voice-activated Web sites and automated call centers more easily, thus making e-commerce easy even for computer-phobic consumers. Motorola dubs this way of doing business "V-commerce."
Don't hold your breath waiting for an explosion of V-commerce and VoxML-enabled applications. Voice recognition technology is improving, but it's still got a long way to go before I'd trust a digital stockbroker to correctly execute buy and sell orders based on my spoken commands.
For example, a commerce-enabled Web site is a rich source of data about customer behavior, because Web server logs can be analyzed to find out where customers come from, how they move through the Web site, what they click on, and so forth. This "click-stream analysis" provides a much greater level of detail than is available through traditional demographic market analysis, or through examination of sales records.
A few modest proposals
Like Motorola, many other companies will soon be floating XML-based markup languages. I'd like to jump on the bandwagon with a few markup languages of my own.
For starters, the Web world clearly needs a standard way to identify pornography, making it easier for parents to filter out objectionable content before it reaches youthful eyes. What should we call this pornography markup language? SexML, of course.
But let's not stop there: Technologies for encoding and reproducing odors electronically are just around the corner. Think of the advantages to online perfume retailers when they can encode Elizabeth Taylor's latest fragrance in easy-to-use, cross-platform SmellML code.
For online tuxedo vendors, the clear solution is the Formalwear Markup Language, or ForML. And camera manufacturers will be happy to use CamML on their sites.
With this proliferation of markup languages, we'll soon need a markup language just to describe and categorize markup languages. Yes, I'm talking about the Markup Language Markup Language, or MLML.
It's easy to make up a markup language -- everyone's doing it. What about you?
Dylan Tweney (firstname.lastname@example.org)
has been covering the Internet since 1993. He
edits InfoWorld's intranet and Internet-commerce
columns by Dylan Tweney
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Every column since August, 1997