"Clean Specs"

Tim Bray tbray at textuality.com
Sun Feb 7 19:06:13 GMT 1999

At 12:01 PM 2/7/99 -0500, Simon St.Laurent wrote:
>To a considerable extent this demands that spec writers see themselves as
>implementors - and probably that they include implementors in the process,
>especially implementors who don't have prior experience in whatever
>standards provided the foundation of the current project.  The story for
>XML 1.0 of using Peter Murray-Rust as a canary is a good one, though I'd
>like to see more of that in the actual group of people writing the specs,
>not just the surrounding groups.

There's an interesting lesson lurking in there.  The original XML WG
included implementors of Author/Editor, HoTMetaL, groff, SP, Jade, 
Pat/Lector, IBMIDDOC, Dynatext, Mosaic, and Grif.  So Simon's (implied)
theory that the specs would have been better, had the authoring group
included implementors, stands on shaky ground.  A couple of hypotheses
that might explain this:

 - being an implementor is not a particularly strong qualification for
   writing specs
 - being a core-technology implementor, rather than a solution builder
   or system integrator, is not a particularly strong qualification
   for writing specs

This group is notably and vocally dissatisfied with the specs, I 
am watching with attention for concrete suggestions as to how
to make future specs better - the one premise that seems to get
consensus, in this group at least, is "more examples".  (Hmm, the
namespace spec has tons).  

As regards the namespace spec, another hypothesis:

 - it might be easier to understand for people coming in from outside who 
   aren't carrying around a bunch of SGML-derived expectations. 

And given that XML actually seems to be succeeding quite vigorously
in the marketplace, a final hypothesis:

 - there is little relation between the presentation quality of a spec, 
   in and of itself, and whether the world will welcome it (presumably
   we *do* believe that the quality of the design being spec'd does
   have some such relationship)

My own personal take - the XML spec has holes that I'm more deeply
aware of than anyone in the world, but it's a bearable compromise
given the combined resource/time/political constraints - and the 
real-world problems with XML are not the spec itself, but SGML-derived 
bogosities like parameter entities.

And as regards the namespace spec, I think that some people on this
list are substantially full of shit, and are wilfully refusing to see
how simple it is because it does not meet their own design prejudices.
I think that spec is *way* better than the XML spec.

Having said all that, people who write specs always have to try to
do a better job next time, so this recent discourse is very very useful.


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