A Web Less Boring

May 23, 2001

Edd Dumbill

The first of several reports from the GCA's XML Europe 2001 conference, being held in Berlin this week. Check back tomorrow for more.

In his opening keynote at XML Europe 2001 in Berlin, Tim Bray explained how XML could make the Web more interesting -- specifically, the Web's user interface.

The Rise of Server-Side XML

Bray recounted that many members of the original team that created XML envisaged its application in web-enabled client document rendering systems, providing flexible user interfaces for exploring content. Instead XML seems to have found its immediate application in the backroom, connecting databases and disparate server systems.

One of the most well-known uses of XML in this scenario is the SOAP protocol, which allows message passing between applications using XML and HTTP. Bray extolled SOAP, explaining that its many implementations and widespread deployment were key to its importance. He emphasized the significant role SOAP will play in the future of web applications.

Bray also questioned the value of the W3C's XML Protocol Activity, saying that they should have rubber-stamped SOAP and got on with things. To the amusement of the audience, Bray mused that with the enormous size of the XML Protocol working group, it might just take them 18 months to make that decision alone.

Client-side Technology Lagging

In stark comparison to the evolution of web server-side architectures, client-side technology has progressed little over the last eight or so years. Web sites have gone about as far as they can with the tools to hand. "The Web is boring!", proclaimed Bray, "it's full of portals that all look the same and are all boring."

The power of the average PC on people's desks now dwarfs that required to browse web pages. Over 95% of a PC's time is spent doing next to nothing. Bray's big idea, described recently in, is to put the PC to work in improving the quality and responsiveness of user interface offered to the user.

That much-hyped darling of the VCs, P2P, has a part to play here, according to Bray. Behind the popularity of Napster and the novelty of SETI@Home, P2P's real lesson is that there's a lot of power in the desktop PC that goes under utilized.

Bray's claim is that with Javascript, the DOM and SVG, there's enough power in browsers now to serve as a useful user interface platform. His technology, demonstrated at, uses the web server to send XML straight to the browser, which then does the hard work of drawing 2D and 3D graphics. In the process, server load and bandwidth are conserved, and the user has a better experience.

However, it's plain that Bray's company, AntarctiCa, went through a lot of pain to prove the concept with client-side technology in its current state. The test will be whether their software and methods (not to mention Bray's tireless evangelism) will generate enough momentum to carry the web browser forward, at least to reclaim the versatility of user interface that existed in graphical applications before the Web -- and to realize the original expectactions of XML's creators.