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Bridging the XML divide between US, Europe

As if Americans and Europeans needed something else to clash over, XML has become a battleground.

Analysts and veteran software developers say much can be learned about science, culture and history by examining the different attitudes and approaches that Americans and Europeans take toward modern technologies like XML.

Furthermore, some suggest that these two regions could avoid repeating some very expensive past mistakes by putting geopolitical differences aside and focusing on technology.

The root difference between the United States and Europe when it comes to XML has to do with the language's fundamentally dual nature as both a message format and document format, said Jason Bloomberg, an analyst with Waltham, Mass.-based ZapThink LLC.

APIs give the illusion of the ability to interoperate with other systems. The reality is that an API will lock you into a particular vendor. APIs are used as competitive weapons all over the map.
Sean McGrath

"Europe has somewhat more of a focus on various uses of XML for document formats than the U.S.," Bloomberg said.

This emphasis on document formats can be traced to the heyday of XML's predecessor, Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML). During that time, structuring print documents was of more interest in Europe, most likely because of the multitude of languages there.

"Structured documents aid in human translation and in ... the understanding of documents across languages," Bloomberg explained. "You can still see this focus on structured document-based information in Europe today."

Another major factor differentiating the European XML market is that the two major drivers of Web services specifications, Microsoft and IBM, don't have has much pull there, said Ronald Schmelzer, also an analyst with ZapThink.

Linux companies and European governments are far more influential in this area, Schmelzer said. As a result, there is less of an API/integration bias and more of a document/open standards bias.

XML specifications and companies focused on data integration, document and content management, and XML data storage get more European traction than firms aligned with existing distributed computing technologies, he explained.

Sean McGrath, CTO of Dublin, Ireland-based Propylon, an XML integration company, has been working in the development space for more than 20 years. He agreed with the two American analysts and gave examples of open standards flourishing in Europe.

For one thing, StarDivision Inc., the original author of Sun Microsystems Inc.'s open standards-based StarOffice software, was founded in Germany.

"It makes sense that [StarOffice] came out of Germany, because [in Europe] there is more willingness to look at Linux and open source-based applications," McGrath said.

Another example McGrath pointed to is the widespread deployment of the LAMP Web development platform throughout Europe. LAMP is an open source platform based on Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP, a programming language for which Perl or Python is sometimes substituted.

U.S. companies specializing in open source software tend to find greater success abroad, McGrath said. One such company is the Fredericksburg, Va.-based Zope Corp., which sells an open source content management system.

McGrath said the biggest reason for Europe's tendency toward open source has to do with cost and economies of scale. For instance, in Ireland, a medium or large-sized company might employ just 200 people. Proprietary technologies are considered big-ticket expenses for a company of that size, he said. Therefore, it would be more likely to seek out open systems.

Asked what the U.S. and Europe might learn from each other when dealing with XML, McGrath recalled the days of SGML. He warned both regions to beware of repeating the mistakes made during that time.

When SGML came out, many people mistakenly thought they had found the perfect universal format. McGrath said he fears the same thing might be happening with XML.

"There were vast amounts of money spent building SGML systems, and most of them don't work anymore," he said.

In theory, ebXML, UBL and other emerging standards sound wonderful, McGrath said. "But the reality is that, if you standardize everything, you remove them from the equation of competitive advantage," he said.

McGrath also said that he believes the document-centric approach to XML is better for creating a level playing field for vendors than is agreeing on APIs.

"APIs give the illusion of the ability to interoperate with other systems," McGrath said. "The reality is that an API will lock you into a particular vendor. APIs are used as competitive weapons all over the map."

ZapThink's Schmelzer says Europe's example can teach U.S. observers that the document-based approach to exchanging information and the use of open source systems can be highly valuable for distributed computing and information integration.

"What Europe can learn from the U.S. is that it takes major vendors to really push an initiative forward and make things happen," he said.

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