Is XML getting too hard? (was: Re: More on Namespaces...)

len bullard cbullard at
Fri Aug 21 03:26:17 BST 1998

James Robertson wrote:
> So I ask: what happened to XML being simple?

Unconstrained requirements.  This one was thrashed in the SIG when XML
SGML On The Web was first proposed.  Spilt milk now, but keep it in
Over the years many things were proposed for SGML.  Some of them lead to 
the complexity of SGML and others were wisely rejected because although 
they made this or that system more flexible, more robust, more saleable, 
they were essentially "out of scope" and the SGML WG rejected them. 
I read the requirements used for W3C documents, I see unbridled license 
for mischief and know only the individuals can keep things on track.  
But it becomes a game of raw power, and that is something ISO does 
better than MIT.  It requires experience and savvy beyond logic.

We know the story.  Something is the "next new thing on the net" and 
the feeding frenzy begins as each interest tries to get something 
added.  So far, other than namespaces and the various schema proposals, 
most of what has "XML" somewhere in the "note" has been recrunched 
work from the SGML projects since 1986.  This has been mostly a good 
thing in that it benefits from the work done among individuals who 
know one another and are aware of positions, concepts, ideas, etc.  
It has resulted in some cases in excellent refinement of the ideas 
and concepts plus some very lucid positions and statements.  For
I found XLL and Xpointers much easier going than the first time 
I worked through these ideas when they were HyTime, DSSSL, and TEI.

Is XML too hard?  Was SGML too hard?

I can't say.  They aren't to me.   Yet I can easily get into something 
like namespaces and lose my way.  Part of that is the feeling of nudging 
and winking about schemas, part of that is that unless one looks at 
all the pieces of the X-docs, one can't get a sense of some of the
It is a lot to understand and as with other standards, the usual
ambiguities pop up.

Will XML be harder than SGML?  If you look at XML The Syntax, no.  If 
you try to grasp all of the other pieces, it is considerably harder.
the XML requirements are too loose to be bounded and the normative
were cast away.  This is problematic and now we can see the results of
I caution those in the W3C to be sometimes less "logical" and more 
"pragmatic".  As the twig is bent, gentlemen, so grows the tree.  This 
tree has a kudzu effect and it is spawning serious issues among other 
language communities.  Call it what you will, you are responsible for 
sorting that out.  It is hard to be Benedictine in a land of samurai.

Is it worth it?  I think so.  While this project is spawning complexity
and maybe 
it is time to review the notes, work out the dependencies, and pause to
I know from the work done in SGML, HyTime, DSSSL, 
various objectIVE SGML systems, MID, and so on, that the community is 
in many ways closer to the system it has desired for the last two 
decades.  That's a good deal.  Congratulations on getting this far. 

Some are trumpeting the death of SGML, but they missed the point.  
XML is SGML.  It is the fruit of those who built SGML, DSSSL, HyTime, 
and it is worthy.  What we could lose and it is a real danger, are the 
ideas behind markup technologies, and the requirements that made 
SGML the preeminent expression of those requirements.  Lifecycle
independence of platform, language neutrality (the reason objects have 
not had much of a role in SGML), preservation of information, lossless 
translation, all of these are intertwined.  Do not lose sight of them.  
The best selling point of SGML is its lifecycle support.  It is a very 
real problem for complex document lifecycles that last decades.  Don't 
make XML applications that cannot be validated by some means. That is 
a mistake of serious proportion.  Don't depend on editors and claim 
"people don't edit the markup by hand".  They do and they always will.

Lastly, don't abandon the community.  Some of you are very new and have 
not had the privilege to know personally, the elders of your community.  
It is easy to be young and full of ideas.  Those ideas are always
but whether you want to admit it or not, you are adding to an existing 
body created by brilliant minds who labored long, hard, and without that 
promise of easy riches made possible by the Internet.  Those who came
before have 
to make sure the torch is passed; those who receive it have to
their time will come to do the same.  Break that chain and XML is

XML is too hard.  Integrated open hypermedia is a hard problem.  Always


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