XML standards coherency and so forth

Steven R. Newcomb srn at techno.com
Tue Jan 12 03:00:59 GMT 1999

[Jeff Sussna:]

> I have been thinking more about the issue of coherency between
> XML-based standards. I think I may have hit upon both the problem and
> the solution. I think we may be missing the very point of XML. XML is
> a data representation language. Having represented a domain in an
> interoperable manner, you can then apply any number of applications to
> that domain. At least some of the W3 efforts, on the other hand, seem
> more focused on applications than domains. For example:
> WebDAV, DRP, and ICE all need to operate on hierarchies of assets. But
> they all think about and represent those hierarchies differently. It
> is easy to imagine a system that wants to apply distributed authoring,
> replication, and content syndication to the same set of content. Why
> not start with a common representation for that content, then let the
> apps expose different sets of operations on top of it? I think such an
> approach would go a long way towards adding coherency between the
> various specs under development.

Coherency between the specs under development will, I think,
ultimately require a single powerful paradigm, such as the paradigms
afforded by architectural forms, groves, and property sets, that can
handle the specification requirements of all of the XML-based
standards.  I have often ranted in favor of higher and higher levels
of abstraction, and I remain unshakably convinced of the technical
merit of abstracting one's way to general solutions, and of the
absolute merit of general solutions.

But it will not be easy to put any such an all-encompassing paradigm
in place, especially after the fact of standardizing mutually
incompatible ways of doing things.  I recently was reminded of a wise
saying attributed to an acquaintance who works at Microsoft: "Whenever
we go to a higher level of abstraction, we lose 90% of the audience."
The marketplace does not necessarily respond either to technical merit
or to absolute merit.  It can't respond to what it doesn't understand,
and surprisingly few people grasp the overall problem of information
management in ways that encompass the combination of problem domains
that, in the aggregate, account for the bulk of the market.  The
doctor can't always get the patient to take the necessary medicine,
either.  But the patient will be back when he reaches the next level
of discomfort, and maybe then he'll be persuadable to have the major
operation he really needs.

Someone recently said to me that a lot of the uproar in XML standards
efforts is attributable to the tendency of relational-database people
to see everything in terms of relational databases and tuples, versus
the tendency of the dyed-in-the-wool document-systems people and ODBMS
people to see everything in object oriented terms, despite the fact
that RDBMSs are where the people, the capital, the expertise, and the
installed base of high-scale systems are.  There's probably a grain of
truth in this observation: that everybody sees what they know how to
see and what they can afford to see, and that this is the reason why
there is a lack of vision-consensus.  It's very challenging to think
globally when a billion-dollar opportunity may be slipping through
your fingers, while pointy-headed people dither contentiously about
technical details that have no great relevance to that billion-dollar
opportunity.  Even if civilization as a whole could save trillions of
dollars in lost productivity by getting those details right in the
first place.


Steven R. Newcomb, President, TechnoTeacher, Inc.
srn at techno.com  http://www.techno.com  ftp.techno.com

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