XML '98: The Gathering

November 17, 1998

Dale Dougherty

XML '98 opened Monday in Chicago, with a bustling crowd of over 1100 attendees. The conference is organized by the GCA, which has long been gathering SGML's true believers, a pleasant mix of academics, developers and consultants. However, this conference is attracting a new audience based on growing interest in XML among corporate developers. One long-time SGML developer said: "The percentage of people I know from before is much smaller."

A conference of this size and scope provides a great opportunity to see and meet people who are deeply involved with XML. At the core is a technical audience with commercial interests on the periphery. This is a dedicated community that has its roots in SGML and open standards. The conference serves as a convenient location for standards activity; the hardcore arrive early or stay late to participate in standards meetings. XML has re-invigorated this community and brought in a lot of new people and new ideas.

Monday's Keynote: Thumbs Down

There are lots of good reasons to come to this conference, but we hope attendees weren't expecting much from the Monday keynote address. In this city that Siskel and Ebert call home, I'm inclined to give the keynote two thumbs down.

The keynote was an opportunity to hear firsthand about XML plans from industry players Adobe, Netscape, and Microsoft. But there wasn't much new in these presentations. Each got a chance to tell the audience that his company believes XML is important. Which is fine and well. It's like politicians from different parties defending Social Security -- you don't expect anyone to outright disagree. Unfortunately, this doesn't necessarily help you understand what they're really up to.

Judging mostly on presentation value, and given that the quality and originality of content was low, Adobe had the best presentation of the three. Adobe delivered on three key components: a high ranking official, stylized overheads, and a product demo. Microsoft came in second, and while their choice of speaker was unusual, he offered a vigorous case that Microsoft is having its way with XML. Coming in dead last was Netscape whose uninspiring representative came with the official story but just couldn't sell it.

Let's look at what they had to say in that order.


Charles Geschke, President of Adobe Systems, opened his talk by describing the convergence of documents and databases. He sees XML as a framework for integrating corporate information, regardless of whether it resides in a database or a document.

Geschke promoted PDF as a format for "reliable digital documents." He said that Adobe "never thought of PDF as an alternative format to HTML or XML." This might be Adobe's current thinking on PDF, but Adobe hasn't always positioned PDF that way. Adobe originally viewed PDF as a by-product of a print process and it remains a viable option for online distribution of traditional documents but HTML remains a far more portable format. In the past, Adobe has not shown strong support for structural markup systems, and the separation of content and presentation. Now, they seem to be understanding the role of SGML or XML in re-engineering the process of managing information destined for print, online and all kinds of machine-processing.

When you get down to what matters most to Adobe, it is imaging. Geschke devoted most of his talk to discussing the importance of higher quality imaging technology for the Web. He discussed PGML, the Precision Graphics Markup Language, which has been one of several submissions to the W3C Scalable Vector Graphics working group. PGML is an XML-based implementation of the PostScript/PDF imaging model. Bruce Hunt, Manager of Internet Technology at Adobe, gave a PGML demo called the "Coffee Browser." This was an ActiveX control inside Internet Explorer that rendered PGML. PGML does more than presentation; it offers the ability to control interaction. The demo demonstrated how a user could interact with a graphic map to zoom in for more detail or to display new elements layered over the current image. In terms of functionality, PGML seems close to Flash from Macromedia, another vector-based format.

When Adobe is talking imaging, they are also talking typeset-quality fonts. The PGML demo rendered text effectively, formatting street names on the map on a diagonal.

Adobe makes a good case for PGML, and nobody disputes the need for a vector graphics format. However, does Adobe see itself supplying a complete rendering engine intended to supplant the simpler display technology in today's browsers? This might mean that Adobe sees an opportunity here, similar to embedding PostScript in printers.


 POP Quiz:
DNA is a Microsoft acronym for:
Domain Network Architecture
Distributed Network Architecture
Distributed interNet Applications Architecture
Deoxyribonucleic Acid

J Allard was Microsoft's choice for its slot on the keynote program. Allard came to Microsoft originally to integrate TCP/IP into the Windows platform. Allard remarked that at one time he contemplated "joining either the Free Software Foundation or Microsoft." He has been credited with convincing Bill Gates that the Internet was the road ahead for Microsoft. Today he is the general manager for Windows DNA.

The general thrust of Allard's presentation was to show that Microsoft's application development model is based on "scaling from the department to the Internet" and that Microsoft will "deeply integrate XML support into the operating system on many levels." These things have been said already; read the Windows DNA white paper on the Microsoft site, which includes the architectural figure below that was a key point of Allard's talk.

Microsoft figure

Allard also discussed XML support in IE 5 and Microsoft included a Beta 2 release of the browser on the Conference CD-ROM.


Jim Adkins, a VP in Netscape's Application Products Division, explained Netscape's vision of the Net economy: "the seamless flow of data across company boundaries." He annointed XML as the "new language of business over the Internet." Essentially, Adkins spent time confirming the idea that XML is good for business, but he gave no clear indication of how Netscape is good for business, or even good for XML.

In other words, having Netscape say good things about XML is one thing, but developers want to see signs of real commitment. I want to see a real demo. I want to see someone with conviction who is able to claim a position of leadership for Netscape.

Standards Update Session

Fortunately, the conference redeemed itself because the keynote was followed by a standards update track featuring Dan Connolly of the W3C. It covered important XML-related efforts at the W3C such as XLink, XSL, DOM and Schema groups. While the industry is anxious to know the details of this work, and anxious to see schedules, most of the work is difficult to summarize effectively in five minutes. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Paul Grosso of Arbortext and a member of the XSL working group said to expect a new working draft of XSL in mid-December.
  • Michael Sperberg-McQueen, co-chair of the Schema Working Group, said that the group was going to go back and create a formal requirements document before evaluating submissions such as DCD, Sox and Xschema. Although some work had been done by the XML-Data group, this is a newly organized group.
  • Bill Smith of Sun Microsystems and chair of the XLink group said that he expected his group to produce a Recommendation on linking in 1999.
  • Lauren Wood of SoftQuad and chair of the DOM working group said that Level 1 was final (it became a recommendation on October 1) and work had begun on the Level 2.

The fact that so many standards developers are here is what makes the conference truly valuable.