RE: XML - where's the beef?

Subject: RE: XML - where's the beef?
From: "Simon North" <north -at- synopsys -dot- COM>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 31 May 2001 16:46:49 +0200

With regard to:

> The initial aim of XML (if I'm not mistaken) was to sort
> of dumb down SGML..

If you want the full (and technical) story on the differences between
SGML and XML, I suggest you read the chapters I wrote for
"Presenting XML" (Sams.Net), available in any bookstore (or
maybe my onw book "Teach Yourself XML in 21 Days").

However, the short story is that SGML was not really usable on the
Web: it needed a DTD and it didn't understand URLs. XML
addressed those problems (and SGML was upgraded to
understand URLs), but there were a few changes that had to be
made to make XML languages more portable, more robust and
easier (and hence quicker) to process.

There were a LOT of features in SGML that were simply not used;
they were too complex -- and often weren't even implemented in
SGML software even though for our tech pubs use they were
wonderful, such as sub-document concurrence. SGML tried to
everything and cover every possible document requirement (I
hesitate to say, sorry Dr. Goldfarb, that it's the result of leaving
software development in the hands of a lawyer ...). In so far as XML
was a "dumbing down", yes, it dropped a lot of the more powerful
features of SGML that would have been very hard, if not impossible,
to implement in a distributed (Internet) environment in which you
have no control over the sources.

[A point of order: XML isn't ASCII-based ... it's Unicode based (in
this context, ASCII can be considered to be a very, very small
subset of Unicode). This is an important difference; Unicode is
much better suited for foreign alphabets/character sets (Japanese,
Arabic and so on). ]

XML has been readily adopted by B2B as an interchange 'format'
(though in fact XML itself only provides the rules for defining an
interchange language), and has been rapidly applied to a ,ot of
other interfacing/interchange problems. XML provides an object-
oriented model for text that is admirably suited for use with Java
so, instead of doing away with Java, XML is actually a strong
argument for using Java.

XML is still very much a work in progress. We now have a fairly
stable core language and schemas are becoming stable. Linking is
pretty near stable (XLink and XPath). We are about halfway along
with the style languages (XSLT and XSL-FO) ... but we have a long,
long way to go yet.

As far as tech pubs are concerned, we still need XML-FO
(formatting objects). DSSSL does provide a useful substitute (if you
are not scared off by having to write Lisp code --- but it isn't that
hard -- I describe XML to Microsoft Word conversion using DSSSL
in my book), but for the moment (on screen) display relies heavily
on Cascading Style Sheets and HTML (Internet Explorer will
display XML using CSS and HTML, but it makes a royal mess of
printing it).

I believe that HyTime and DSSSL were pointers to the path for tech
pubs to move into the 20th century ... unfortunately, they were/are
technically superior but too complex for general use. XML may
probably provide the better compromise in the long term (it is, after
all, the old 80/20 rule ... XML gives 80% of SGML's power for 20%
of the complexity).

As far as technical communication is concerned, we are only just
beginning. XML in itself does NOTHING. It is an "enabling
technology", it makes things possible. The software we are
documenting now uses XML as an internal representation. This
XML code is parsed to produce online documentation and online
help information. It's about as close to "single source" as I've seen
yet, but give us another year or two ...

Simon North
Senior Technical Writer


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RE: XML - where's the beef?: From: Chris Despopoulos
RE: XML - where's the beef?: From: David B. Stewart

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