If the Web language called XML is really the Next Big Thing, as companies such as Microsoft Corp. and visionaries such as Web creator Tim Berners-Lee are suggesting, no one will be happier than Phillip Merrick.

"The first 12 to 18 months, it was difficult to get money, business-to-business wasn't hot, XML was unheard of and we were in the wrong place, according to people in [Silicon] Valley," says Merrick, chief executive of software firm webMethods Inc. of Fairfax.

Now he has venture capital, from local funds as well as Mayfield Fund in Silicon Valley and Goldman Sachs in New York. Some of the top names in technology--3Com, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq--are customers. WebMethods is working with Microsoft on the giant software company's own XML offering, called BizTalk, expected out next year.

And Dell chief executive Michael Dell has personally invested an undisclosed amount in webMethods.

While webMethods is not quite a household name in Washington, Silicon Valley's high-tech magazine, Red Herring, named it one of the nation's top 50 private companies. And industry sources say the company will likely file for an initial public offering before the end of the year.

Simply put, XML (eXtensible Markup Language) is a Web language, like HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), but one that is more interactive and well suited for electronic commerce because the coding contains markers that make it easy to standardize information across the Internet. That allows the use of "intelligent agents" to seek out consistent information and then act on what they find.

For example, webMethods used XML to link Hewlett-

Packard with 100 of its suppliers within three months, says Merrick. If H-P wants new disk drives, it can find out instantly how many of the drives it needs are available from its suppliers, what the prices are, submit an order, and immediately get back an acknowledgment that the order has been placed.

The company got into XML when one of its co-founders bumped into Berners-Lee at a computer conference. "He said, 'You have to learn about this new XML thing,' " says Merrick. "He saw this as the second phase of the Web."

XML can certainly be used for consumer sites, too, says Merrick, but right now the money is in the business-to-

business market.

But if Microsoft is so interested in XML, couldn't it just crush little webMethods?

That's why webMethods is "cooperating" with Microsoft, helping it launch BizTalk, says Merrick. No money is changing hands in the deal, he says.

"Every software company, every Internet company worries about Microsoft," says Merrick. "But they're also driving the market."

In Washington for an e-commerce summit last week, one of the leaders of the New York technology scene dropped by The Post to tell us his counterparts in Silicon Alley need to get more political, and he's trying to figure out a way to get New York techies to start meeting with Washington lawmakers.

Chan Suh, chief executive of Agency.com, one of the early interactive marketing agencies, says he's particularly interested in issues such as online privacy and digital signatures.

"It's time for Silicon Alley to get ahold of this," Suh says. "No one in the Alley knows who to talk to in D.C. That leads to ignorance."

Still, Suh admits, many New York techies just don't think politics affects them. "There's a real aversion in Silicon Alley to political organizations of any kind," he says. "A lot of us still have that tribal mentality."

Suh's not quite sure how to get these groups together, and he doesn't want to create yet another "coalition of Net-heads."

His immediate plan of action: "I'm just going to ask the annoying questions."

And he invites lawmakers to come up and visit, anytime.

More lawyers are hearing the siren call of technology start-ups.

Take law firm Greenberg Traurig of McLean, which specializes in the high-tech sector. In recent months two of its lawyers and two staffers have left for greener pastures.

The latest to go is Evan Smith, who will leave his post as director of Greenberg's intellectual property and patent practices this month to join one of his clients, Spring Technologies Inc. of Falls Church, as senior vice president of strategic planning.

Spring is developing a technology that identifies people by scanning the irises in their eyes, and plans to sell it as a way to check people in at places such as airports and arenas, hoping to make tickets obsolete.

Smith's entire career has been at law firms, and he says that although he has been approached by clients before, he wasn't particularly looking to leave. So why go?

"To be completely honest, stock options," says Smith.

He's taking a "significant" equity stake and about a 30 percent cut in salary, he says.

The two staffers went to educational software company Blackboard Inc. of Washington. But Smith says Blackboard asked the firm's partners' permission before recruiting them away.

Smith says to look for more of these defections in law, public relations and accounting.

"You'll see a revolving door in the service industries," he says.

Send tips and tales of the digital capital's local people, deals and events to Shannon Henry at henrys@washpost.com.

TechThursday columnist Shannon Henry will host a live Web chat today at 1 p.m. with Phillip Merrick, CEO of webMethods, which provides XML-based business-to-business e-commerce products. To participate, go to www.washingtonpost.com.