The Key Role of Open Source in XML

December 9, 1999

Edd Dumbill

Delivering the closing keynote of XML'99, Peter Murray-Rust, the instigator of the XML-DEV mailing list, highlighted the vital role that open source software has played in the success of XML and warned against balkanization by commercial interests.

Declaring that XML was "probably the best thing that's happened in my life," Murray-Rust embarked on an energetic tour of the history of XML and made several pleas to safeguard its future.

Agreeing on semantics is the most important issue in XML right now, according to Murray-Rust. "What do we mean by what we write in our documents?" he asked. While we have reached agreement on syntax and encoding, agreements on semantics are still being worked out.

He stressed the importance of trusted non-profit organizations who are able to guard and regulate the "semantic marketplace." In particular, Murray-Rust lauded the efforts of OASIS, and also noted the place that the GCA, W3C, IETF and governmental and academic institutions have in the regulatory domain.

In a demonstration of confidence in such organizations, Murray-Rust announced that OASIS will host the XML-DEV mailing list, which is currently maintained by Henry Rzepa at Imperial College in London The mailing list has 1,500 members and adds 10 per week.

Murray-Rust paid special tribute to James Clark, the XML/SGML philanthropist, and praised him for the quality of his software and his commitment to open source. He noted that a colleague of his had been dubious about the merits of open source software until he had seen the tremendous effect such software had had on the development of XML. Free tools are vital to XML, he said, and good XML editors are one of the biggest challenges in the tools arena. But his praise was not limited to the open source community: he also paid tribute to several vendors, including Microsoft, for their efforts in the support and promotion of XML.

A bigger problem than tools, however, is conflicting commercial concerns. "People are the problem, not technology," said Murray-Rust, who is a chemistry professor. He foresees great dangers if XML becomes dominated by warring companies or consortia, which may potentially result in "semantic or ontological warfare." This would be "a disaster" for XML, he said.

The specter of the balkanization of XML loomed large in Murray-Rust's talk, and he asserted vigorously that "bottom-up" efforts, such as his own in CML (Chemistry Markup Language), must be allowed to flourish.

Does XML solve our problems? Not entirely. It does, Murray-Rust said, point out where your problems lie. J.P. Morgenthal made the same point earlier in the day when he doubted that most corporations even understood the data they have within their organization. Recognizing that the hard problems lie with people and agreed semantics, Murray-Rust emphasized the need for control over XML vocabularies in order to preserve the hard-won interoperability of XML.

Peter Murray-Rust, although involved in XML from the start, has never been an "insider," but instead a consumer of all XML had to offer. From that point of view, he offers an incisive and definite opinion on the past, present and future of XML. While during his talk he praised many others involved with XML, his personal contribution deserves to be recognized as a driving force in XML.