XML for Preferences

Dave Winer dave at userland.com
Sun May 16 16:31:54 BST 1999

We've come up with another excellent use for XML, to specify the interface 
for a web-based preference system.

There are a lot of reasons why XML is the right choice here. First, it's 
understandable to people who write documentation. That means that the 
preferences wizard has a hope of being understandable to newcomers, since 
the system developer doesn't have to write the help text, and the work 
doesn't even need to be coordinated. The interactive part is just software, 
interpreting the content which is specified in XML.

Also, you can render the same specification in a variety of different 
formats. For now, we're rendering as HTML, but it could just as easily be 
rendered in Flash, DHTML or as a Visual Basic "wizard". The concepts and 
the content are the same, but the engine running the content doesn't have 
to be.

Further, if there were an agreement on how to specify preferences systems 
we could switch our deployment from Frontier to PHP or Zope or Oracle or 
Vignette, or whatever, and a lot of our content would just move with us by 
moving the preferences spec.

In other words, this is an important place where a standard, defacto or 
standards-body-based, would enable growth and eliminate lock-in.

***Where we're at with this

We have a running system at http://prefs.userland.com/. This is a live 
system, to access it you must be a member of userland.com, which is open to 
the public.

If you're not a member, go to this page: http://logon.userland.com/, go 
thru the logon sequence, get the password via email, it should be 

Sorry, there's no way to use this system without being a member. We won't 
do anything with your email address other than store it along with your 
password and preferences.

***Show me the XML!

Now, there are two ways to see the XML spec behind this system. First you 
can directly access the XML page, thru this URL:


Or you can see a screen shot of the editor:


Important point: Any XML editor can be used to edit this text. It does not 
have to be our outliner, which is a good XML editor. Any tool that can 
produce XML output will work fine.

***How to think of this

It's a very lightweight thing. Any HTML coder can learn how to do this. 
It's not as powerful as Mozilla's XUL, but then it's a lot simpler than 
XUL. We looked at XUL before doing this, thinking perhaps that it would be 
a good starting point. We decided that it introduced a lot of unnecessary 
complexity for the people doing authoring, writers, explainers, users.

We're doing this in the open. Maybe someone else wants to build on this 
idea? If so, please let me know. The spirit of XML is building on each 
others' work, that's why I keep telling you guys what we're doing.

Keep diggin!

Dave Winer
UserLand Software

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