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A return to innovation

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Chris Randles praises XML as a basis for innovation and technical communication

Any reader who surveyed the business landscape before the bubble burst might be forgiven for thinking the technology industry was all about venture capitalists rather than technology or innovation. Unthinkable volumes of venture capital were dumped into businesses that sounded good, but were not sound.

Innovation and investment are parts of a symbiotic system. If they let each other down, the whole system breaks. Over-investment in Big IT does not produce results; without the right innovation, and intelligent thinking, the bubble will burst. Venture capitalists were centre-stage, but now entrepreneurs need to take that stage back. We have to get back to grassroots and invention.

In our industry, there have been a few major technologies that have led to huge advances for the entire market. For example, the PC made computers affordable to a broad audience and spawned a breed of technology heavyweights.

The best innovations in the computer industry have been tied to tools for individual users that boost personal productivity first and, consequently, bring gains to a collective user-base. The lure of personal empowerment is strong. From personal empowerment to corporate gain The goal now is to enable collective empowerment or collaboration. The next big thing will be technologies that truly enable collaboration with ready access to information. Just look at Microsoft's repositioning of its Office suite toward 'collaborative business knowledge', placing less emphasis on it as a productivity suite, and more as a collaboration environment.

At Mathsoft Engineering & Education, we have also observed this need to stretch personal productivity to a workgroup or even an enterprise. Our corporate customers are moving much of their innovation offshore, distributing it around the world in search of lower costs and around-the-clock productivity. Information must flow easily, instantly, and globally between different kinds of systems. We see a bright future for innovation in our industry using XML.

XML is a standards-based method for encapsulating the meaning and structure of data, using tags or metadata. The promise of XML is that every piece of information can have attached to it metadata that explains its purpose and significance. Virtually any data items can be captured, managed, and used by allowing documents to contain and reveal meaningful, structured content. The promise of the technology is a 'semantic web', where data is always accompanied by information describing its meaning - enabling systems to better process information that would otherwise be meaningless and one-dimensional. The combination of XML's simple and universal text-based approach, with the power of specialised schemes eliciting meaning from otherwise unstructured data, enables groups to define and share special-purpose implementations of XML. This allows for faster information interchange. The technology, which enjoyed early success in the financial sector, is now being broadly adopted across an array of vertical industries and special interest communities. New 'flavours' of XML appear almost daily. From steel to stocks to sports, an astounding number of different XML standards have been defined and adopted and are enabling a new generation of web services and e-business.

The design engineering market is no exception. Engineering drives innovation in many Fortune 1,000 companies, whether it is the civil engineer at Bechtel assessing the structural integrity of a bridge, the mechanical engineer at Motorola working to develop a mobile phone that will not break when dropped, or the chemical engineer at Procter & Gamble determining the effects of a new detergent on cloth. The ability to communicate mathematics effectively, as well as critical data and meaning, is paramount. XML promises what could be the biggest step forward in data communication, collaboration, and verification that the engineering industry has seen to date. A world where each critical engineering calculation has context, meaning, and traceability, will represent a major leap forward, enabling improved quality, faster development times and easier re-use of important knowledge.

To better understand this, consider how engineering enterprises have traditionally handled the numbers underlying their work. Calculations are frequently performed by hand or with calculators and spreadsheets, by writing programmes or using mathematical software. In most organisations, these calculations - often important methods or data, are scattered across desks, personal hard drives, document management systems and filing cabinets. Although these calculations are important corporate assets, they are rarely treated as such; the focus is often on the result and not the method.

The result of not managing these assets is needless re-design; sometimes disastrous errors; and, always, lost productivity and lost revenue. Software companies know about the value of intellectual capital, but technical organisations frequently squander it for want of a way of capturing and managing it. Hence, organisations are waking up to the need to put their business-critical calculations under management. Whether it is computing critical product parameters to gauge the impact of obtaining steel from a new supplier, analysing test data to verify circuitry for a new semiconductor, or predicting product performance, applied math calculations form the backbone of design engineering projects.

XML is poised to bring new versatility, portability and collaboration to technical computations, adding automatic meaning and traceability to vital calculations that fuel engineering innovation. The beauty of XML is that you do not have to embrace somebody else's file format; you are embracing a method for encapsulating meaning, in a way that can be interchanged with anybody. Will it be the next big advance in the market to jumpstart a new economy of innovation? That remains to be seen, but the promise it holds for increasing efficiency and reducing time to market is certainly a step in the right direction.

Chris Randles is Chairman, President and CEO of Mathsoft Engineering & Education, Inc