Canadian XML pioneer ready for lift-off

Though he’s never been to space, Robert Drassinower says he’s beginning to feel like one of those early U.S. test rocket pilots.

“There’s the rocket. You have fuel in it, you’ve powered it all up and the countdown is going. So what’s the thing that causes you to be nervous?,” he asked rhetorically. “It’s the sheer acceleration factor.”

While it’s unlikely that Drassinower and his peers who work in the emerging and much talked-about Extensible Markup Language (XML) industry will ever be the subjects of a modern-day The Right Stuff, the comparison isn’t entirely unwarranted.

Drassinower, president and CEO of Toronto-based SoftQuad Software Inc., a privately-held Web software company and one of leading lights in the emerging XML market, was at the helm when his company went to market with the first mainstream XML authoring tool, XMetaL.

Indeed, as Drassinower likes to point out, Softquad has always been something of a pioneer; the company was a founding member of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a body made up of Internet vendors and experts that first drafted the XML spec (and its predecessor, SGML), as well as the Internet Engineering Task Force.

As a set of protocols used for creating tags, XML goes beyond HTML by actually describing information in a way that can be easily read and understood among disparate computer systems – and people.

Though there should be a sign over every IS professional’s door that reads “Beware of hype” there is evidence that XML is more than just a passing fancy. About 100 companies, including Intel, SAP, 3Com, Hewlett-Packard and Federal Express, are corporate members of the RosettaNet consortium, which is working to complete a full set of XML-based business documents and processes early this year.

As well, the W3C expects complete soon its XML Schema specification, which should provide a baseline for XML document interoperability from application to application.

Young technology

Still, industry observers say the actual market for XML is somewhat unclear. While no disagrees that it could fill a much sought-after niche – cheap and problem-free document exchange between business partners – IT shops may face a monumental task when it comes time to translate HTML code to XML.

And earlier this year, research firm CAP Ventures of Norwell, Mass., found that less than one-quarter of 250 respondents were implementing or planning XML projects this year or next.

Drassinower acknowledges XML is young, but when he looks at the market he likes what he sees. “Effectively, the standard was made official…not quite a year ago, and when you think of the progress that we made in one year, it’s astonishing,” he said. “All the pieces are beginning to get delivered by the major vendors, and that’s an important step (for XML).”

In this case, “progress” is the race among the vendor heavyweights to support – or at least be seen supporting – XML. Microsoft, Sun, Oracle and IBM have all announced their own XML strategies over the last 12 months. According to Drassinower, that’s just what the doctor ordered for XML to make the leap from hyped technology into the back offices of major corporations.

Softquad was founded in 1985 by two scientists, Peter Sharpe and Yuri Rabinksi, and centred mainly on SGML. Eventually the company was sold to a U.S. firm which helped launch the HTML tool HoTMetaL. Enter Drassinower, a former software engineer turned high-tech entrepreneur, who joined SoftQuad in 1994 and helped oversee the launch of HoTMetaL Pro 4.0. It was he who led a $1.39 million buy-back of the company in November 1998.

“We just looked at the strength of the company and said ‘This XML stuff is coming around, and the potential is huge,'” he said. “(Then) the mission was to as quickly as possible establish the new company and put it square in the middle of the XML market.”

New infrastructure

That’s where Drassinower feels he is today – smack dab in the middle of something big. He points to a number of factors evolving in his, and XML’s, favour.

For starters, Y2K is over, and the presumed backlog of IS projects are now underway. Next is the undisputed rise in business-to-business e-commerce, a trend that “requires a new infrastructure,” he said. Then there’s the money. Drassinower said there’s an unprecedented amount of capital aimed squarely at XML, both by vendors and investors.

To maintain SoftQuad’s position, he’s digging its heels in by cultivating long-term partnerships in a variety of key vertical markets. It’s a strategy that Drassinower can’t underline enough. In fact, he dismissed XML critics who say the fracturing of XML, the so called different “flavours” being created by vendors and industry associations, is a sign XML is breaking down. Instead, he calls that very process a sign of success.

“[They] miss the point, and here’s why: the whole point of XML is to create these industry-specific vocabularies that people can use to exchange information. So here’s the XML standard being collectively supported, and people viewing that and saying, ‘Geez, these are just silos tearing the standard apart.’

“But the standard is there in order to facilitate industry-specific activity.”

Drassinower is less forthcoming about the future of a small, independently owned company playing in the fast-changing tech sector – that includes talk of take-overs. “Will SoftQuad get acquired in the future by somebody? Absolutely, if we’re part of the solution that makes things happen for somebody, then yeah, it’s a possibility,” he said.

His short-term concerns are of more practical nature – cash. “In high technology, the ability to raise capital is very important, and U.S. valuations are higher. It’s as simple as that.”

Despite the headaches, it’s the vision of the astronaut that seems to keep Drassinower going. “We’re talking about new paradigms here, absolutely…25 per cent of the value of a car is manufacturing, the rest is distribution and marketing. Think about that for a moment. You fundamentally change the way you exchange products…and on the other hand you change the way in which you market, because the Web is bringing whole new ways to reach target markets. The stakes are huge.”

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