Coming of Age in Cyberspace: Births, Deaths, and Milestones at SGML/XML ’97

January 10, 1998

Seybold Report on Internet Publishing
Vol 2, No 5

January, 1998

Ever since XML was first announced just over a year ago, we’ve been saying that it would have a tremendous impact on Internet publishing. It seemed only logical to us that the Web, which was grounded in a limited form of generic markup (HTML), should extend that markup to embrace the richness we all enjoy in print.

though still an infant, promises to provide the basis for much better text processing than the Web has seen before. It will enable better typography, more specific searching, faster downloads and much more sophisticated data representations than HTML will ever provide. No single document architecture, no matter how rich or complex, can cover all of the possible types of documents people create. Only a standard and widely supported metalanguage—one that lets authors and publishers create tags and structures that reflect their documents—provides the flexibility that expression of written communication demands. Only such a metalanguage can support the continual refinements in document layout and processing that online publishing requires.

THE BIG NEWS of SGML/XML ’97, held the week of December 8 in Washington, DC, is without doubt the release of the W3C’s Proposed Recommendation for Extensible Markup Language Version 1.0 (XML). If last year’s announcement of a work-in-progress put us on notice that a Blessed Event could be expected, then this year’s announcement was the birth itself. When balloting is completed by the 229 members of the consortium in January, we expect that the newborn will be officially sanctioned and brought into the fold. The baptism, or bris, as you like, will be no more than ceremonial—the child already has the blessing of wise men and women from Redmond, Kyoto, Santa Clara, Edinburgh and beyond.

The conference as a whole could be seen as a series of births and deaths—products shown for the first time, products that will never be shown again (yet further attrition in the structured editor market)—and evidence that the proud parent, SGML, has made it more or less unscathed into adulthood. Other signs of maturity were that not all XML-related announcements were made in Washington. Several were part of the mainstream event 250 miles to the north at Internet World at the Javits Center in Manhattan, where Microsoft conducted nonstop private press briefings, and several vendors declared their XML support. (See sidebar, page 23.)

XML is an optimization of SGML for the Internet, for the Web, for electronic text and electronic commerce. History may treat XML as a rebellious youth, always a popular image with the Webhead generation, but continuity with 30 years of development in structured, nonproprietary markup optimized for publishing and data manipulation is as much a part of XML as is its current status as the Next Big Thing. The ISO working groups responsible for SGML and the related family of standards—HyTime and DSSSL—met the week before the conference and consolidated a number of changes known collectively as "WebSGML" that ensures conformance between the parent and child specifications. A parent willing to change to accommodate youth is a sign of a family that will stay together.

The only major change to the W3C Proposed Recommendation for Extensible Markup Language in a year of gestation was the addition of case sensitivity in tags. For the rest, it was a process of "intensive review resulting in small changes" according to co-editor of the XML standard, C. Michael Sperberg-McQueen. The dedicated XML Special Interest Group "plumbed the depths of white space handling" and other esoterica so that the rest of us will not need to do so.

Perhaps the strongest sign that this was a coming of age for SGML as well as a birth for XML was evidence collected on the show floor that SGML is selling software: SoftQuad, a company that is more widely known for HotMetal, the HTML editor than for its SGML Author/Editor core technology, confided in us that its SGML product line is now profitable for the first time in ten years and that it has sold more licenses for Panorama (the SGML browser) than for HotMetal. The SGML companies that have always had strong sales and positive balance sheets such as OmniMark Technologies, Synex, Inso (formerly EBT) and ArborText, had more staff and larger booths than at any previous show.

The air of prosperity has spread to new ventures as well as market leaders. Representatives of Vicom, maker of the "beast," the Nereus SGML-based interactive multimedia training system, were grinning ear-to-ear because in the past six months their product has found its market. Four out of five inquiries and sales, according to Dale Hardy, president, are motivated by support for SGML, which is now the product’s edge in the highly competitive multimedia market.