XTech '99: Momentum Builds in the IT Sector

March 15, 1999

Liora Alschuler

The Seybold Report on Internet Publishing
Special to

A Quieter Event, But No Letdown in Progress

It would be difficult, nay impossible, to reproduce the exhilaration of XML conferences of days past: there will only be one breakthrough year, there will be only one year when the big computer firm in Redmond endorses XML. In the first years of the activity that started life as "SGML for the Web," the question was, "Would we see XML in the browser?" And, "If so, when? This week in San Jose, with speakers from Netscape and Microsoft vying for the title of most-XML-compliant browser on the planet, it was difficult to work up much tension over XML in the browsers, even if it's not a done deal that either firm will do it properly.

This year, at both Xtech and Seybold Seminars, the browser implementations were overshadowed by XML adoption by other heavyweights in the computer industry. Proclamations of strategic directions and product announcements by Sun, IBM, Lotus, Oracle, Adobe, and Object Store underscore the new thinking about XML: it is not just simplified SGML; it is not just a better way to publish to the Web or to interchange data; it is a standard central to the future development of our high-tech, information-handling infrastructure.

IT Vendors Line Up

In his keynote address, "XML & Java: Business Need, Technology Direction," Jonathan Schwartz, Director of Java Software at Sun Microsystems, said that "XML is about making the industry self-sufficient." What he meant by that comment was symbolized by the yin-yang on his title slide: that just as Java provides platform-independent logic, XML provides platform-independent data. Together they can support the requirement for reuse of information across arbitrary, and idiosyncratic, display devices for new audiences where the ability to ship information anywhere, from the car dashboard to the gas pump to the canyons of Wall St. While Sun helped underwrite the creation of XML through its support of Jon Bosak in the standards committees, this was the first time it sent a senior executive to an XML conference to proclaim Sun's corporate support for the standard. Schwartz announced Sun's call for developers to embrace a Java Standard Extension for XML that can provide first-class XML support in the Java development platform.

Marie Wieck folowed with a talk called "XML, IBM and e-business" in which she said that she had the best job at IBM because she got to follow all the XML activity across the company. The IBM booth on the show floor demonstrated the Alphaworks toolset announced last November, now augmented with a new editor (see related story). Earlier in the week, Steve Muench from Oracle spoke on support for XML in 8i, which was announced last fall but is just now being delivered to the field. Oracle has added a new feature called Object Views that supports export of XML through a SQL query against a database table. (See the Oracle Technology Network.)

The previous week at Seybold Seminars, Adobe and Lotus joined Oracle and Inso in a panel of vendors explaining their support of XML. One of Adobe's principal scientists, Jim King, described how XML tags within the data stream can be referenced, even when placed into the PostScript context of a PDF document.

XML exists and is now part of the IT landscape, but it remains a pretty rugged frontier.

Noah Mendelsohn, a consulting engineer working at Lotus on XML support within Notes, outlined both the specific XML features Lotus is developing (such as a server-based XSL transformation tool) and the basic architectural support for the separation of form from content within a Notes database.

Drawing the techies. The "tech" in XTech is a deliberate pitch to the folks who actually write the programs and put together the implementations that make the bits go round. While fewer people registered for this year's conference, compared to the marketing show put on in Seattle a year ago, more companies paid for floor space to show these folks their wares.

So it would seem that those watching the march of XML across the technical landscape could declare victory and go home. While the contest between Microsoft and Netscape to see who can build the bestest browser with the baddest XML support no longer carries much suspense, major questions on the future of structured markup hang in the outcome of other races.

Can the Standards Keep Pace?

A feature that builds on a recommended method from the DOM or XML or namespaces supports the standard. A feature that extends the DOM or extends the pattern matching contained in the current XSL draft breaks the standard. The game for standards developers is to do careful, valid work while not falling too far behind the release schedule of the next whiz-bang competitive widget. Jon Bosak kicked off the conference with the observation that only the first part of XML was complete. Left undone are the linking and style standards. On the style front, so far, implementations of XSL have focused on transformations, not styles. To kickstart XSL styles, Sun and Adobe are sponsoring a contest to see who can develop layout engines for Mozilla (see related story).

Tim Bray capped off the conference with the observation that, at last count, seven of the working groups had slipped their latest delivery dates and that folks doing standards development tend to be very, very tired people. Bray pleaded for smaller, simpler standards, ones that can get implemented, and ones that will let everyone go home and get a good night's sleep once in a while. Bosak closed with a pitch to the standards writers: Don't let yourselves be "badgered by big vendors that want to have it in six months to make money."

Can the Users Keep Pace?

Another question that hung unanswered at the end of several of the conference sessions was "Will the users schematize their own information?" To put it more simply: "Will the shoemaker write her own DTDs?" On that note, several of the technical papers and tools pointed to development directions that may broaden the schema-writing audience. Murata Makoto, Engineering Specialist at Fuji Xerox Information Systems, demonstrated software that automatically generates DTDs that comprise the intersection/union/difference of two schemata. The Object Design eXcelon product demonstrated a UML-like way to graphically define a schema.

Keynoter David Siegel, President of Siegel Vision, gave a credible imitation of a don in his talk, "How to Find a Hit-man Online: Murder, Convergence, and Coercion in the XML Future" and delivered the message that we need to have democratic communities taking responsibility for, and laying claim to, their own data. His formula for this lies somewhat to the right of center on a scale ranging from communism to anarchy. His answer: DTDs with controls and extensions to maintain the balance between flexibility and stability, or, as he put it, a degree of standardization greater than bricks and mortar and less than government housing.

Owners of information, would do well to heed the same advice Bray lent to the standards community — "keep it small, and keep it simple, and remember: standards (and DTDs) that exist are better than standards that don't exist." XML exists and is now part of the IT landscape, but it remains a pretty rugged frontier.