Should XML Become a "Real" Standard?

November 14, 2000

Edd Dumbill

In an evening meeting at XML DevCon Fall 2000 in San Jose, some 60 people representing XML specification developer groups gathered to discuss the future development of XML standards. The issue: should XML be submitted to a more formal standards body, such as the International Organization of Standards (ISO) or some other body.

Ken North, chair of the conference, convened a meeting of what he called the "XML community process." According to North, several people recommended to him taking XML to the ISO and proposed this meeting as a forum to discuss the idea.

Arnaud LeHors of IBM, a former World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) staff member, noted that the W3C, which developed the base XML recommendations, does not consider itself a full-fledged standards organization. The W3C calls its documents "recommendations" instead of standards -- however, W3C worked with ISO to get HTML accepted as an official standard.

Steve Carson of the Web3D Consortium discussed his group's efforts to get the Virtual Reality Markup Language and other specifications through the ISO process. Carlson said Web3D had to work out serious questions of intellectual property rights with ISO, as well as putting price tags on the standards documents. Web3D, like many business consortia writing XML specifications, make their documents freely available, while ISO charges as much as several hundred dollars a copy for standards documents. In the end, Web3D and ISO agreed that Web3D could continue its practice, but ISO would charge for the same document.

Paul Cotton, who served for 10 years developing the Standard Query Language (SQL) as an ISO standard, pointed out that ISO standards are often cited by governmental authorities in procurement specifications, especially in Europe. He also said that ISO has a fast-track capability to move the work of other standards groups through the process. The Object Management Group, for example, has submitted the Unified Modeling Language to ISO under this arrangement.

Cotton noted however, that consortia need to work out the handling of maintenance. Unless the agreement with ISO includes giving responsibility for further enhancements or fixes to the consortium that developed a standard, ISO will appoint its own working group, resulting in duplication and confusion.

Much of the discussion focused on standardizing application program interfaces (APIs), such as the Document Object Model (DOM) and Simple API for XML (SAX). Tommie Usdin of Mulberry Technologies said OASIS had established a technical committee to review APIs and provide guidance on standardization. She said OASIS establishes committees, then lets the groups work through the solutions, leaving coordination to the committees themselves.

Jason Hunter described JDOM, an API written specifically for Java. Hunter described the Java Community Process, set up by Sun Microsystems to get more public review of Java specifications. This process allows anyone to propose a Java specification request (JSR), which must go through an open working environment and public review.

Jonathan Borden of the Open Healthcare Group, Paul Byron of Health Level 7, and Alan Kotok of DISA discussed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) as a case study of using standards as part of legal mandates. HIPAA requires most health care providers, HMOs, and insurance companies to begin using EDI messages in the X12 standard for financial and administrative transactions by 2002. Borden noted that the law came about to overcome 30-40 percent overhead in a $1.1 trillion dollar industry. The discussion noted that when standards become legal mandates rather than voluntary, the top priority becomes compliance with the law.

Kotok described DISA's role as secretariat for the X12 committee that voted recently to begin developing accredited cross-industry XML business standards, under the ebXML framework, and working with its international EDI standards counterparts.

Another major topic concerned conformance testing and branding. Norbert Mikula said OASIS has set up a test suite for conformance testing, but it did not do the testing itself. Other participants in the meeting noted that whoever performs conformance tests runs the risk of legal action from companies that do not like the results.

Several participants questioned the need for ISO standards involvement. Simon St. Laurent, a writer and consultant, asked "What is the price tag for standardization?" He noted that right now XML has multiple pathways for getting specifications, which encourages competition. Laura Walker of OASIS urged that standards should get as close to the consumer or end-user as possible.

Other participants questioned the benefits that may result from ISO standardization of APIs or XML as a whole, and noted that some ISO standards, even those that were open and tightly designed, do not necessarily attract a large following. Tim Bray, co-editor of the XML 1.0 specification, asked the meeting participants for a show of hands as to who was in favor of an ISO standard for XML. Aside from about three people, no one else responded.

Many thanks to Alan Kotok of DISA, who writes frequently for, and contributed to this article.