The XML.com Interview: Liam Quin
April 9, 2003
Many people have contributed to the development of XML. One contributor and XML expert who stands out is Liam Quin -- author and co-author of three popular books on XML, and employee of the World Wide Web Consortium (w3c.org) as XML Activity Lead. He spoke with me by telephone recently from his home in Toronto about his career in the web and with XML and of his views on XML. Before relaying this interview, let me first describe his demeanor in speaking so that you may add color to his voice in your mind as you read his comments below: He's a gentle speaking man with a soft British accent. He's sedately cheerful and very friendly. He gives the listener a sense of non-judgmental maturity and kindness.
Early Days and Influences
Quin was born in Northhampton, England, son of a Vicar of the Church of England. He graduated from the University of Warwick in Coventry in 1984, earning a bachelor's degree in Computer Science with honors. Early on one could say he was drawn to text. He became interested in literature, ancient text and fonts. He has a reputation in typography as a technical font guru. He is the creator and maintainer of a text retrieval program called, lq-text. Quin explains that "lq-text is useful in keeping an index of all words in a document. You can index hundreds of megabytes of text with it."
In 1990 Quin moved to Toronto, taking a job with a company called SoftQuad. He was Senior Technical Consultant by the time he left in 1997. SoftQuad made a popular HTML editor called HoTMetaL (odd capitalization intentional). Quin was the technical product manager in charge of HoTMetaL. "We had been producing an SGML editor called Author/Editor. It so happened that I was at a conference regarding information retrieval in Summer 1993. They interrupted the conference for people from NCSA to introduce this thing called Mosaic that they had just released. I went back to SoftQuad and downloaded Mosaic and we tried it. We didn't have a direct Internet connection at the time, so it was very difficult -- but we managed to try it," recalls Quin. He went on to say that "Yuri Rubinsky, who was head of SoftQuad, realized the significance [for SoftQuad]. He was a great visionary who went around promoting the idea of structured markup and SGML. We had an SGML editor and he figured out pretty quickly that Mosaic was using HTML which was based on SGML, so our editor ought to work for it." Yuri had Quin and his staff develop an HTML editor (HoTMetaL) based on their SGML editor. "It was the second commercial web product and the first commercial HTML editor. It was quite controversial because we had a free version for download. It was very successful for the company. And more than financially successful, it gave us a lot of visibility and made contacts," says Quin -- contacts that would eventually bring him to the W3C.
Creation of the W3C
While at SoftQuad, Quin actively participated in the Usenet forums on HTML. "I used to spend a couple hours each day reading and posting. I figured it was awfully useful marketing for us; it made people feel we were responsive. It was at least a good learning experience," Quin explains. He was also involved in the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force). It's a volunteer organization; their meetings are open to the public. In 1994, he went to a meeting on HTML that was held in Toronto. Quin remembers that "It was the initial meeting of the HTML working group. We got involved in standardization of HTML. Maybe after a year, although we managed to get a document done for HTML, it was pretty clear that it was a major problem." The problem was not necessarily with the volunteers, but with the browser vendors and their attitude toward public meetings. Quin explains that "The browser companies were having their browser wars. They didn't want a public forum in which they discussed features before they were implemented. The IETF was not a suitable forum for standardizing HTML at that time." Without the cooperation of browser vendors, attempts at standardization were somewhat pointless and frustrating. "That's one of the ways in which the World Wide Web Consortium got started: it was to create a forum in which that kind of collaboration could happen," says Quin.
SoftQuad created another popular product for the web called Panorama. Quin became technical lead and product manager for it. He says "it was a Netscape plug-in that let you view SGML." Quin's reputation was growing from the Usenet, from his conference activities, as well as his position with HoTMetaL. His new role with Panorama is what finally brought him into the WC3 and XML. Yuri Rubinsky gave pre-release copies of Panorama to several people, including John Bosak of Sun Microsystems and Michael Sperberg-McQueen of University of Chicago (now of W3C). Quin recounts, "They were both very interested in and excited about the product because it was quite a good product. They both wanted to be able to do SGML over the web. Within that context when the XML activity for delivering SGML over the web started, they invited me to participate." Eventually, his participation in the W3C led to a full time position.
Life at the W3C and Other Activities
Quin is now XML Activity Lead, the staff contact to the XML Core working group (it's responsible for XML specifications) and alternate contact for the XML Query working group. Quin explains that "Part of the responsibility of the staff contact is amongst other things to make sure that the specs fit in with all the other work that the W3C is doing. We don't want to have an lots of incompatible ways of doing things if we can avoid it." Quin is able to work from home mostly. However, he says that he spends "an average of one or two weeks of the month traveling to conferences and so on. Each working group has regular face-to-face meetings. Occasionally I meet with browser vendors and other companies."
Additionally, Quin makes presentations at conferences and writes books about XML. In 1999, Wiley Inc. published a book, The XML Specification Guide, written by Ian Graham and Quin. The book is now out of print, but the publisher has expressed an interest in doing a second edition. Quin says, "It's conceivable. I would do it with Ian Graham." In 2000, Wiley published a second book written by Quin alone: Open Source XML Database Toolkit. In 2001, Sybex published Quin's third book, Mastering XML, Premium Edition. It was written by Chuck White and Quin.
Quin on XML
With Quin's personal interest in typography and his background in SGML and HTML, he naturally had a deep rooted attraction to XML in the sense that it is an agreed upon method of delivering text, in a self-described manner. I asked Quin the standard question we're all asked by XML outsiders: 'What is the point of XML, what can one do with it that one couldn't do with a language like Perl?' He responded by saying, "There's nothing one can do in XML that one can't already do in something else, except for one thing, which is working with other people and sharing data and reusing tools. By having the same format for all sorts of things, that means that the same tools can work on the same documents and you can have all sorts of tools written for the same document." In the midst of giving me his take on XML and with having only a few minutes before mused over his interest in typography, an analogy came to my mind: XML is similar to the pictographical written language of China in that it is a common standard for communication between people of several different verbal languages. Not a perfect analogy, but I think it's an interesting one.
Quin goes on to say that "XML is a shared serialization of data with different programs and very different data models, but if they can share the same data through a serialized XML, then you get programs working together." He gave this example: "A bank might have several departments, each using mainframe computers with different software written ten years ago that they really don't want to change. They want each department to be able to access each other's database, though. It's possible to put up a web server programmed with a CGI script. It goes off to a database and does a query and then comes back with presentable data within pointy brackets. Very often the staff are willing to do that because it requires no expertise, whereas a CORBA interface does."
Quin plans to remain at the W3C for quite a while, of course. He says, "I hope we can keep the vision of XML moving forward. I'm very optimistic about the progress of SVG and CSS and XSL because I think we're seeing ways to make a web where there are much more instances of XML, where processes can be accessible." He goes on to say that "Accessibility and internationalization are two things that are very important to me as an individual. I am kind of looking forward to a world in which people can share graphics and mathematics and diagrams that integrate into web services and database documents."