XML is boring (was Re: coming clean with the SGML crowd)

John E. Simpson simpson at polaris.net
Fri Sep 11 19:22:38 BST 1998

Re: various postings on the subject (all worthy and none, remarkably, angry
or even disagreeable)....

I believe the main obstacle to XML's mass acceptance -- to its being
understood as non-boring, at least for the nonce -- is that what it seems
(to me) to be best at is not something the masses are clamoring for.

**** XML as a tool for presenting structured documents on the Web: "Gee,
that's great. How can I *see* the documents thereby presented?" Although
the absence of a general-purpose XML-aware Web browser can be derided as
not worthy of XML's promise, it's also the case that for [insert huge
fraction here] of Web users, the Web *IS* their browser. Almost nobody
opens up a book and exclaims, "Hot damn! I'm so happy this was printed
using offset technology instead of hot metal!" (even though the importance
of the printing technology is profound in many "invisible" ways); for them,
the content and the means of delivery are indistinguishable. If XML is
never capable of being rendered through a mass-market browser -- either
directly, or via CSS/XSL post-processing of the XML itself -- it just plain
ain't gonna fly as a "structured document presenter for the Web."

**** XML as a tool for data interchange and/or presenting structured data
on the Web: My sympathies as a writer and Web developer lie with the "Why
use XML for structured documents? I've got HTML for that" crowd, alluded to
in the preceding paragraph. As a *developer*, however, I think the
possibilities for XML as a data storage/interchange/mediation tool are
indeed exciting. The problem here is that almost no one in the real world
-- except other developers and related technoid types -- gives a hoot about
data storage/interchange/mediation. Give someone a complete desktop office
suite and I'd be willing to bet that the DBMS is the very last component
they'll ever run (if they ever run it at all). Instead, they use what they
already know (or can hack their way to from what they know) -- from
mail-merge word processing files through kludged-up spreadsheets that they
(or worse, the suite vendors) mislabel "databases."

OTOH, if you put a nifty database-based product in someone's hands and
don't tell them it's database-based, they'll swoon over it... as long as it
solves a problem that THEY care about.

HTML is a general solution to a general problem, and hence the masses' (and
the media's) excitement about it. XML is (potentially) a device for solving
50,000 specific problems. What makes it boring is that any given one of
those specific problems is of interest to only one of a given 50,000
individual users. I guess you could come up with a general-purpose XML
application that would be one interesting thing to all potential consumers,
but it would probably be so lightweight as to make everybody wonder what
all the fuss was about.

I'm an optimist, too. But I think it's important to focus on the things
worth being optimistic about, and not be distracted by the natural human
tendency to want to share everything that excites *us* with everyone we
meet. (I had an uncle who used to talk like that; his value as a dinner
companion consisted entirely of his helping us all appreciate how late it
was, how late it had been since he last paused for breath in fact, and we
really needed to be running now thankyouverymuch. Not that we didn't love
him all the same, but still....)

So that's another two cents to add to the gleaming (and still growing)
mound of copper <g>.

John E. Simpson          | It's no disgrace t'be poor, 
simpson at polaris.net      | but it might as well be.
                         |            -- "Kin" Hubbard

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