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Sunday, November 26, 2006

XML: Ten Year Aniversary

It's hard to believe that in a couple of weeks we will celebrate the 10 year aniversary of the first public unveiling of the XML specification at the SGML 1996 conference. It doesn't feel like it's been that long (at that time we were marveling that it had been 10 years since the publication of the SGML Standard).

I will, as it happens, be at XML 2006 for a couple of days--I wonder who else from the original committee will be there? Jon Bosak, of course, as he's giving the closing keynote, and Michael Sperberg-McQueen, who's also on the program. Anyone else? I've been out of circulation for a few years so I don't even know who's still active in the community except for those members who have blogs (Tim, Eve) or who have prominent jobs (Jean Paoli) or simply are prominent (James Clark). Paul Grosso of course is still very active but doesn't go to many conferences these days. Paula has her new Paula's Texas Orange business (very tasty stuff, by the way). Does Peter Sharpe still work on XMetal (I couldn't find anything later than 1998 on Peter with a quick Google search)?

Being a member of the XML Working Group was a singular experience and one I'll treasure. My personal contribution to the final form of XML was fairly slight I would say but we all contributed. I fought for some things that didn't get in, probably for the best. In hindsight I would have fought for some more things to be left out (entities, notations).

As a standards-making activity it was unique: a small group of people with a clear common goal, consistently strong technical knowledge, diverse backgrounds and constituencies, and a task that was relatively easy: take an existing standard and simply cut away everything that wasn't absolutely essential for use on the Web. Few people appreciate that in XML 1.0 there was no invention. We didn't add any features to SGML, we only removed them. [Although the SGML standard had to rush to keep up with some of the syntax changes we made so that a fully-conforming SGML parser could parse XML documents correctly without any special-case code--as far as I know, that update to SGML was only implemented by James Clark in the SP parser, but it was important at the time that we do it (at that time I was also a member of the ISO Technical Committee responsible for SGML, HyTime, and DSSSL). In 1996 we had no idea if XML would sink or swim and we had to assume that SGML would still be the primary standard. Of course it didn't take long to see that XML would in fact sweep away the past with nary a glance back. {But Innodata Isogen has clients who are still using SGML systems and SGML documents, so go figure.}]

XML is, if anything, a singular marketing success--we took something that already existed (SGML) and without changing anything essential about it, rebranded it and made it suddenly not only acceptable to the Web world, but essential.

It was also unique in the way the activity was conducted. Jon Bosak as chair realized that the only way to ensure the cleanest, purest result was to allow members to make decisions that their constituents would not necessarily have supported. Thus all deliberation of the Working Group was private and confidential. (This was also how the U.S. founding fathers operated the Constitutional Convention that resulted in the current U.S. constitution.) This allowed us to focus almost entirely on the technical issues at hand.

Together, these aspects of the Working Group allowed us to produce XML in record time (about 18 months, if memory serves). Certainly no specification of any import within the XML family has been developed as quickly since then. Even namespaces, which should have been a no-brainer, took at least two years (first published in 1999, started spring 1997). It was namespaces that drove me out of the W3C standards arena at the time--I was upset by Tim B-L's insistence that we use attributes to declare namespaces (I wanted to use processing instructions). At the time I felt that Tim's overriding of the consensus of the Working Group was unacceptably heavy handed, that he should be a benevolent dictator and what's the point of having technical experts if you're not going to respect their decisions? That is still a potential problem with the W3C as a standards-making body--it is ultimately controlled by a single person (it doesn't really matter who that person is, just that it's a single person). It didn't help that I was also burned out from working on both HyTime and XML at the same time, while working on a very demanding project for work (Boeing's eMOD system). So maybe I was looking for an excuse to get out of the standard's business for a while. But in 1997 it still wasn't clear the degree to which the Web would become the primary platform for information systems.

In hindsight Tim's decision was probably the best one--my objections had more to do with invading the user's name space (the set of names that a user can choose for element types and attributes) than for any particular love of PIs. Charles Goldfarb had thoroughly schooled me in the inviolability of the user's name space and many of the features of HyTime are there specifically to avoid any need to take away names from users.

Of course, in the much more pragmatic world of the Web, we make a small (and essentially insignificant) sacrifice of a few names in order to provide an essential feature (clear name disambiguation) with the simplest possible syntax.

But that's all history now. XSL-FO brought me back into the W3C fold and I'm happy to be there, although my patience for standards work has, I think, reached its lifetime limit.

One of the things that happened when XML was announced was that everybody wanted to be involved. The way the W3C works (or at least worked then--I haven't checked the participation rules lately) is that any W3C member can place anybody they want on any working group. Over night, the XML Working Group went from being a small group of people with a common goal and universal respect for each other to a large group of largely competing interests, many of whom had no particular technical interest but only wanted to protect or promote their business interests, for good or ill. This had the effect of slowing progress way down, as the sheer number of people made communication difficult and made it easy for anybody to impede progress just by monopolizing the weekly conference call.

This seems to be the way that many, if not all, of the important standards get done these days, with standards activities being more like battlefields and less like technical working groups. And of course this has its highest expression in the battles of competing standards produced by different bodies (i.e., OASIS vs. ECMA vs. W3C vs. ISO).

I still marvel that XQuery ever made it to Proposed Recommendation at all.

I definitely miss the old days, when a standard could be developed by a handful of very sharp technical folks more or less without non-technical interference. I don't see those days returning any time soon--standards are too important to business to let the technoids run the show and the days of big industry investing in big standards is long gone. Today most standards activity is funded either by marketing budgets or by the personal commitments of single practitioners who have made a living out of being an expert in their chosen standards. You do see some standards, like DITA, being driven largely by the user community, both that's because it's an end-user application standard in which the users have an immediate and obvious stake, rather than an infrastructure standard that only a few people really understand or care enough about to invest time and money in standardizing it (XSL-FO, for example).

So here's hoping I'll get the chance to catch up with some of my former XML Working Group collegues, see how their lives have changed in the last ten years, see where they are driving the future.

See you in Boston.


Blogger John Cowan said...

Unicode is still run in the old style.

1:10 AM  

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