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XML vs/and HTML5

XML vs/and HTML5 published on

One thing we learned at the Balisage 2014 Workshop on “HTML5 and XML: Mending Fences” of two weeks ago is how vast a gulf is …

I thought the day went pretty well. Highlights included a knock-down survey by Steve DeRose on requirements for hypertext (not always so well addressed in the web stack); a demo by Phil Fearon showing the level of polish and performance that can be achieved today (at least by an engineer of his caliber) with XML/XSLT/SaxonCE in the browser; and the redoubtable Alex Miłowski reflecting ambivalence (or at least this is the way I took it, very sympathetically): regret for missed opportunities and concern for the future, mixed with an unshakeable sense of opportunities still in front of us.

Most of us in the room were ambivalent, probably, albeit all in our own ways. We were treated, by Robin Berjon (who did a fantastic job helping the Balisage conference committee organize and run the event) and by Google’s fearless and indomitable Dominic Denicola, to an examination of what HTML5 will offer us, including features — web components — that promise the capability of hiding “shadow DOMs” in the browser presenting arbitrary markup vocabularies (which in principle includes descriptive markup languages) and binding them to browser semantics, allowing them to be handled and processed in CSS and from script using standard APIs. Awesome stuff.

On the other hand, web components (notwithstanding prototypes) are still a distance off, and no one knows like this crowd how the most well-meaning standards initiatives can go awry. (Can anyone say “XML namespaces”?) Plus, this was an audience already satisfied (at least for the most part) that traditional XML document processing architectures — layered systems often running where browsers never see them — are meeting our needs. Not only has XML not failed us, it is a phenomenal success; on top of the many excellent tools we have, all we really want is more and better tools (sure, we’ll take web components); better integration in application stacks of all kinds; and — above all — more curiosity, sympathy and maybe even understanding from ambitious hot-shot developers who aspire to make the world a better place.

I mean, we came to listen, and we did, but I’m not sure anyone was there to hear us but us.

I hasten to add, of course, that this isn’t (or isn’t just) a matter of feeling unappreciated. To be sure, an audience that included technical staff from organizations such as (just to name a few) the US House of Representatives, the Library of Congress, NCBI/NLM (publishers of PMC), NIST, ACS, OSA, and other sophisticated publishers both large and small — people who use XML daily to get the job done (and web browsers too, if only for the last mile) — found it a bit jarring to hear our tried-and-true solution (which indeed is such close kindred to the web) described as a “pet project”, and therefore deemed unworthy of the attention of an important company that builds browser software. But this wasn’t the issue. More than anything, we need not recognition or respect (heck, this is a crowd of introverts, happy not to get too much attention) — but support — young blood, new, active and imaginative developers who will help us not to retire and forget our working systems, but to maintain, extend and improve them.

Instead, we are being offered a new platform on which to relearn old lessons, however disguised they will be in new syntax and technical terminology. And what is worse — the message we hear being told to others is that the successful technologies and solutions we have built do not matter, will soon obsolesce, and deserve no further consideration in the wider economy, to say nothing of investment.

Yes, I exaggerate! I didn’t hear any of this said, at least in so many words, by anyone last August 4. These were just implications hanging in the air.

Yet the sense was unmistakeable that these two cultures were frankly baffled, each by the other. One culture (“the web”?) deliberately limits its scope of interest to the web itself – necessarily and rightly so – and so it must perforce assume that the HTML web and its browser (name your favorite vendor here) are the be-all-end-all, the only communications medium a civilization would ever need. (I know this is a caricature here. Feel free to argue against it.) Another culture (call it “XML”) values standards in text-based document markup not because they are a driver for adoption of anything in particular, but when and as they support adaptability and heterogeneity — of applications and of needs and purposes — on a robust, capable, versatile, open and non-proprietary technical ecosystem — that is, not on one platform or another, but on whatever platforms work best, today and then (differently) tomorrow.

So why are XML developers regarded now as lacking vision? Because we live in a world bigger than the web, whose edges we do not claim to see?

Set this aside, the little voice tells me: it doesn’t really matter. Instead, come back to that unshakeable sense of opportunity that Alex Miłowski communicated. This could work: this does work. We have XML, XSLT, XQuery: the tools are there, and the work is being done. There is no shortage of strong ideas circulating in the XML space. (Over the course of the next few days, Balisageurs including David Lee, Hans-Jürgen Rennau, John Lumley, Abel Braaksma and others showed this well enough.) And HTML5 does not have to be a competitor any more than other formats, both data sources and transformation targets: like PDF, HTML, CSV, you name it, HTML5 will be a tool for us to use, for the work it is good for.