XML, Standards and You

April 10, 2000

Edd Dumbill

Unusually among fashionable technologies, XML had its very genesis in a standards organization. Because of this, its current use and future development are inextricably tied with the world of standards and standard-makers. The wranglings and decisions of those involved in XML standards have a very real and lasting effect on developers--not to mention business, the Web at large, and ultimately the end-user.

The key promise of XML--interoperability of data--rests on there being a high degree of conformance to an agreed-upon standard. Transgressors of these standards run the risk of either being ignored or, if they are influential enough, corrupting the goal of interoperability. Add to this the intimate ties between XML and the future of the Web itself, and the issue of standards becomes yet more significant.

By this point, if you have more than a passing familiarity with the World Wide Web Consortium, you doubtlessly will be getting ready to write to me saying, "But they're not 'standards,' they're 'recommendations'." This is true enough. There's no governmental regulation on the Web for standards-conformance. The best that bodies such as the W3C can do is make recommendations and build consensus.

In fact, "standard" has become somewhat of an abused term. Some groups, eager to get adoption for their technologies, are badging them as "standards" in order to establish their credibility. Additionally, standards-fever has encouraged many small groups to band together and create a "standard" for a particular application, adding to the alphabet soup and confusion. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but by no means will all of these initiatives ever gain popular support. Developers should research the scale of support that each standard actually has.

The Standard Makers

W3C: The most influential body by far in XML standards is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Responsible for the original XML 1.0 Recommendation in 1998, they are continuing to develop the core "toolbox" for XML users.

OASIS: Rising to meet the challenges of e-business is OASIS. Differentiating themselves from the W3C by presenting themselves as standardizers rather than inventors of technology, OASIS have embarked on an ambitious project, ebXML, to create XML standards for e-business.

IETF: The IETF has less direct involvement in XML than the other two bodies, but has impact in specific areas. The WebDAV and SOAP protocols, for instance, are both being developed through the IETF. In contrast to the committee-centric nature of W3C and OASIS, IETF is more open to grass-roots involvement. The IETF have documented their process in RFC2026.

Vertical Consortia: There are many consortia being established to handle data-exchange standardization within particular industries. Quick on the uptake have been the IT supply and financial industries, but practically every day now a new initiative for an industry XML-based language is announced.

Who should write the standards, anyway? Those writing influential standards inevitably affect many more people than can possibly be involved in writing the standard itself. Can grassroots users give effective feedback to standards committees, or are they at the mercy of the moneyed?

I hope I have already demonstrated both the importance and the frustrations of standards. This special issue of is dedicated to shedding light on two of the major players in XML standards (the World Wide Web Consortium, and OASIS, the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards), as well as to exploring why standards matter and who enforces them. We've purposely not covered every single organization here, but focused on those steering the future of XML as a whole.

The Standards Process

One source of confusion and frustration to developers outside of standards organizations is keeping up with and second-guessing the moves of the various committees. The stages of a standard's lifecycle and the means by which you can contribute can be difficult to come to grips with. We invited the W3C and OASIS to explain how they work, and how they arrive at standards themselves.

In "W3C and the Web Community," Ian Jacobs from the W3C explains how ideas graduate into becoming specifications and, finally, recommendations. He also outlines how you can get involved, whether or not your company is currently a member of the W3C.

Writing on behalf of OASIS, Jon Bosak, the "Father of XML," outlines the "OASIS Process for Structured Information Standards." He explains the mechanisms by which technical committees function within OASIS, and considers the challenges inherent in running such groups.

Enforcing Standards

As I mentioned above, enforcement of standards is largely down to consensus building, economic imperatives, and public pressure. One organization dedicated to campaigning for the upholding of standards on the Web is the Web Standards Project. In "Grassroots Enforcers," I interview Jeffrey Zeldman of the Web Standards Project about their aims and achievements.

Related Articles has published various articles related to the theme of standards, which may provide useful background reading for this issue: