Integrity in the Hands of the Client

Nelson Minar nelson at
Sat Nov 22 17:04:43 GMT 1997

>We are at a very exciting, but critical, time in the development of XML

Yes, definitely. The next six months are when XML stops being a small
research effort and starts being used by people who don't care about
how to structure documents, but just want to publish. If XML is rolled
out correctly, we can make it easy for them.

>XML will be used by vastly more people that current practise SGML.

And by a lot of people who have never heard of SGML and don't care
about it.

>In many cases the XML specs (including XLL and XSL) deliberately do
>not say how something should be done - only what syntax should be
>used. The WG has (often rightly) taken the view that it should not
>prescribe ways of doing things. But we are not at - or very near to -
>the time when people will start doing things and there is a danger
>that we shall end up with serious inconsistencies.

The danger is more than inconsistencies. XML is complicated and hard
to understand how to use well. In order to help the people who just
want to publish, examples and tools need to be developed to help
people not just build legal XML, but *good* XML. That's hard, both
because you have to encapsulate a practice of good XML authoring and
even worse, come up with what we mean by "good" in the first place.

I'm reminded of what happened in the first few months of 1994, when a
lot of people suddenly learned HTML. One of the most useful documents
(for me) of that period was Eric Tilton's essay "Composing Good HTML"
(since turned into a book, "Web Weaving", with Carl Steadman and Tyler
Jones). It was a short essay, but it laid out many of the basics of
writing HTML well - issues beyond syntax. Style issues like "don't say
'click here' in a document, integrate the anchor text into the
narrative". Structural issues like "don't misuse headers" and "try to
do logical formatting, not physical". And meta information
recommendations, like "put your name on documents" and "put a last
modified date on documents if it makes sense". For me, that essay made
HTML made sense, gave some order to the varied capabilities of the syntax.

I tried to do my bit back then by writing an HTML editor tool (an
emacs mode) that made it easier to write good HTML. Indenting the HTML
source to show the document structure, providing simple templates to
get basic well formedness, automating last modified footers. And I
think it was reasonably successful - pages written with my editor were
at least a little better than pages written with nothing.

XML needs similar style guidelines and tools if people are going to
use it well. The problem for XML is harder than with HTML since XML is
more powerful. I think XML will be most successful for casual document
writers when there are standard well-established DTDs combined with
style sheets that are simple to use and very well documented as to
what the tags mean and how to use them. I don't know how to smooth the
process of helping people develop their own DTDs.

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