XML leaders push forward at Montreal meeting

September 20, 1997

Seybold Report on Internet Publishing
Vol 2, No 1

No earth-shattering surprises, but solid progress

Interest in the Extensible Markup Language ( XML ) is still heating up. First, Microsoft announced a push channel based on XML syntax. Then, Netscape changed its apathetic stance and hired the standard’s coeditor, Tim Bray, to represent the firm’s interest on the editorial review board. In late August, about 75 people gathered to discuss the state of the art in markup languages. Bray was there and filed (for us, not on behalf of Netscape) this first-hand account.

At the first-ever "XML Developers’ Day" in Montreal, a group of about 75 developers gathered to share their perspectives on XML. The presentations were primarily by technologists, for technologists. There were no blockbuster announcements, though there was a rumor that Microsoft is cooking up a style sheet language that marries XML syntax with DSSSL semantics—a development that would place XML even more firmly in the midst of mainstream Web development.

There may not have been any showstoppers, but there was pleasing progress on a number of fronts.

Bitstream/Archetype do XML. The biggest technology punch came from Bitstream, which recently acquired the rendering engine and expertise of Archetype. Archetype’s NuDoc formatting facility has been exciting industry players for quite some time now (see Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 25), and the company recently cut a substantial deal for it with Atex.

At this meeting, the news was that NuDoc now formats XML. This engine has H&J, flexible characters, good margin handling, and a nested and rubber-banded layout model: capabilities the likes of which Web browsers (and in fact not a few DTP systems) can only dream of. At the conference, it was being used to generate HTML and cascading style sheets, to very good effect, although the product’s data sheets, at the moment, claim only to generate four-color PostScript and PDF files.

On the face of it, it would seem that Bitstream is not far from being able to deliver what DSSSL has been promising for years, and (as is painfully obvious to publishing veterans) what the Web needs to help it grow up.

There was one hole: There was no evidence, in the demo, of table formatting capabilities. The bad news is that this is first of all totally necessary, and secondly, difficult to build. The good news is that things being what they are, a vendor such as Bitstream could go a long way toward solving to this problem just by supporting the HTML table model.

Not precisely a hole, but an incongruity, is that the Bitstream style sheets (in Template Style Language [TSL]) are straightforward but are not written in XML format, which might be a big plus in this emerging market. However, making that change should not be difficult for the vendor.

CommerceNet does XML. There was an unexciting but perhaps important announcement from CommerceNet, the big electronic commerce consortium, which announced support (and a "demonstration program") for XML. According to Patrick Gannon of CommerceNet, the company believes "that XML may just be the ‘killer application’ needed to open up the World Wide Web for electronic commerce." Tall talk, but so far no product from the self-declared giant of electronic commerce.

Progress in authoring tools. Authoring vendors were in evidence, with demos of working XML software from Grif and ArborText. The Grif demo was perhaps slicker: dynamic creation of tags starting from HTML, automatic CSS generation and execution. On the other hand, it is the same demo we’ve been seeing from Grif since this spring; one hopes that the product is moving closer to release.

ArborText’s demo also had significant overlap with what we’ve seen before, but the company also trotted out a very impressive proof-of-concept of XML’s extended linking facilities. The presentation showed links to read-only documents, and had links that stayed anchored to a little chunk of text as you edited the document, including inserting paragraphs and sections before it, and changing the string being linked to. This is cool stuff, but ArborText is the first to admit that it’ll take a while to embed it in a shipping product.

We noticed SoftQuad’s chief scientist sitting in the back row, paying undivided attention to these authoring demos.

And the real question is . . . XML is clearly becoming the facility of choice for anyone within shouting distance of the Web who wants some special-purpose syntax.

This is all to the good. The real question, though, remains: When will the browsers read XML directly? Both Microsoft and Netscape have announced XML languages, and rumors are that Microsoft is busy working on other XML developments and may increase its presense at upcoming XML events. With the annual SGML/XML conference coming up in December, might we look forward to native XML support in Web browsers in this calendar year?