"XML will be phase two of the Internet revolution, just as the graphical user interface was phase two of the PC revolution," Ballmer said. "XML will be the lingua franca of the Internet, if you will."
Ballmer delivered his speech at ACM1: Beyond Cyberspace, a three-day technology conference organised by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). ACM is the largest international educational and scientific society, and stages the conference every four years as a forum to discuss future computing initiatives. The first ACM1 was held in 1997.
XML is important because it provides an open standard -- meaning one that's not owned by any one company -- for exchanging information between computers and end users, and between computers and other computers. Its ability to describe data with much greater detail than HTML, the programming language widely used on the Web today, makes it idea for new types of services and applications, Ballmer said.
To illustrate, he hosted a demonstration of an application being developed by Microsoft Research Labs, which employs some 600 staff worldwide. The application uses XML and other emerging technologies to filter a user's incoming digital communications and make the deluge of information more manageable, he said.
Dubbed Priorities, the software examines telephone calls, e-mail messages, chat messages and other inbound data and assigns to each a level of urgency based on certain criteria. The criteria include basic information such as a user's location and the type of device they are using, to more complex criteria based on a user's past interactions with the person or company that sent the message.
"We're doing a cost benefit analysis on every message coming in," and deciding whether to deliver that message or hold onto it until later, said Eric Horvitz, an engineer with Microsoft Research Labs who joined Ballmer on stage.
Using digital video cameras and microphones, the software can even assess the "ambience" in the room where the user is located to determine the best time to deliver a message, Horvitz said. Messages can be displayed in a queue where they are ranked by priority according to the various criteria.
"One of the interesting features about having a priority mail filter is that its becomes a sort of junk mail filter too," Horvitz said.
The Priorities application may be some way from the mass market -- Microsoft has been working on it "for years," according to Horvitz. Still, even Microsoft's Outlook Mobile Manager software, released about two weeks ago, includes some basic capabilities for creating profiles that control when a user is troubled by an e-mail message or a page, he said.
"We're working closely with the product teams at Microsoft ... to make this all happen on a grander scale," Horvitz said.
.NET revolves around XML
Microsoft has said before that XML is a central part of .Net, an initiative unwrapped last year designed to take Microsoft beyond client/server computing and make it a major provider of Internet software. The effort encompasses a range of software, tools and services for building new types of Internet-based services that will be rolled out over the next few years.
In one example of a .Net service, Microsoft announced earlier this week that eBay will support its .Net initiative. The partnership will result in eBay's community-based commerce engine being made available as an XML-based Web service to other Web site operators, allowing them to list relevant goods available for auction on eBay at their own sites. Other examples Microsoft has outlined include currency conversion or language translation services that will be developed by one company and used as building blocks by others as part of a broader service offering for travellers, for example.
An open standard such as XML is essential to this vision because it allows services to be created by one company that can then be integrated into service offerings from other providers, Ballmer said.
Microsoft has been criticised in the past for tying initiatives such as .Net to its Windows operating system in a way that gives Microsoft an advantage over its competitors. Ballmer asserted here that Microsoft's intentions with XML are honourable.
"Some people say, 'Microsoft and open standards -- do those things go together?' The answer is yes, absolutely yes, but that's not to say that we, like other companies, won't do our own patentable (intellectual property) development," he said.
Microsoft is committed to providing funding for, and working with, universities and other research institutions to further technology development, he said. The company will spend about $US4 billion on research and development this year; of that, about a quarter of a billion will go towards forward-looking research that's not tied to any particular, planned Microsoft product, he said.