XSL has Set Back the Web at least 2 Years

May 20, 1999

Michael Leventhal

When I have criticized Microsoft for the lack of complete and correct CSS support in IE5, I have found that many are quick to class me among the irrational Microsoft bashers. In fact I am keenly interested in seeing Microsoft create a browser which adheres to Web standards. I want to see this because I believe that to a significant extent it is the character of our new information-based civilization which is at stake. I also happen to believe that we will sell many more of our 'Zillas if the technology we use is also supported by Microsoft and by other browser vendors. Finally, I think that the vendors can be persuaded that it is in their interest to support web standards if consistent pressure is applied to them from the marketplace and from those people who are the catalysts for new technological developments.

Today there is one and only one W3C Recommendation for the formatting of XML documents on the Web, CSS. Today there is one and only one W3C Recommendation for transformation and manipulation of XML documents, DOM. This year we could have had semantic markup on the web, in the major browsers, with support for XML 1.0, CSS and the DOM. This did not happen and I am sorry to say that XSL advocates that did not clearly articulate their support for current Web Recommendations contributed heavily to that state of affairs.

I think it is clear to all that the early implementation of XSL by Microsoft was a disaster. As predicted, the next version of the W3C XSL draft created two XSLs, the W3C's and Microsoft's. But more important than this is the fact that XSL has been a major marketing coup for Microsoft in enabling them to "hide" their deficient implementations of web Recommendations and to force the entire marketplace to postpone XML implementations for another couple of years while we wait for common standards that work in the all the major vendor's products.

The corrective action at this point is to do what we as a community should have done six months ago, to insist on full implementation of CSS, the DOM, and XML. If we clearly articulate this message now we may have XML on the Web in one year instead of two. If we wait for XSL to either flop or succeed it will definitely be two and if it does flop perhaps it will be three. There are also issues far more basic and critical than XSL which the W3C should be addressing with greater attention and priority. These include linking, row and column spanning in CSS-specified XML tables, and inclusion of scripts in XML files possibly followed by query and schema issues. Our first order of business is to create a workable and standard XML environment for the Web. XSL, a standard designed to improve the layout composition of printed documents, should not be in our first order of business.

The second part of this article consists of a comparison of the well-known Microsoft stock-sorting XSL and an enhanced application which uses the DOM and CSS instead of XSL.