XML is 20

February 10, 2018

Tim Bray

Tim Bray on XML's 20th birthday

“It was twenty years ago today/Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play…. Actually, it was 21½ years ago today that Jon Bosak pulled together the original XML Working Group. But yes, it was on February 10, 1998 that XML 1.0 was released to the world. Which is worth talking about.

It turns out that if you follow the pointers back, the original XML 1.0 Specification is still out there; my fingers were the last to touch that document. The history of how XML came to be has been told at great length elsewhere, as have the details about that February 10th, so there’s no need to revisit.

What matters?

Twenty years later, it seems obvious that the most important thing about XML is that it was the first. The first data format that anyone could pack anything up into, send across the network to anywhere, and unpack on the other end, without asking anyone’s permission or paying for software, or for the receiver to have to pay attention to what the producer thought they’d produced it for or what it meant.

That comment about software highlights another thing that matters: These days, nobody in their wildest dreams would consider designing a data format without also shipping open-source software to do something useful with it. But in 2008, it was pretty noteworthy that by February tenth, there were already several open-source parsers available off-the-shelf.

The second thing that mattered was the recognition that documents are data and deserve to be treated with respect, with grown-up software, just like the rows and columns in spreadsheets and databases. Today, serious documents — medical records, the Legislation of the United States of America — live in XML and there’s really no other good choice.

Now, the mirror image of that statement is that you can treat data records as documents. People did a lot of that with XML just because there was no other alternative and, well… while it worked, you could do better, and in fact we have done better, for weak values of “better”. I wonder if we’ll ever do better still? As the editor of the IETF JSON RFCs, I’m a pessimist.

It’s been OK

Seriously; XML made a lot of things possible that previously weren’t. It has extended the lifetime of big chunks of our intellectual and legal heritage. It’s created a lot of interesting jobs and led to the production of a lot of interesting software. We could have done better, but you always could have done better.

Happy birthday!