XML for Preferences
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
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
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.
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