Everyone from Forbes magazine to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is saying that XML is at the strategic center of our industry. That makes me happy, as I helped invent XML. But there is a significant hype problem, so let’s stick with the basics:
XML is a set of rules for taking your data and encoding it in chunks of text, which you can easily send across the Net and unpack at the receiving end. It has good internationalization and error handling, and nobody owns it.
That’s all there is to it. It may sound simple, but you need something like XML in any modern enterprise application?whether you’re integrating your catalog lookup system with your extranet or building a next-generation network GUI like my company’s (Antarti.ca) Visual Net product.
XML isn’t just a data transmission tool; enterprises around the world are using it to author and store data as well. They do this because information is valuable and sometimes long-lived. In a world where software goes through a generation every 18 months and you can’t predict what you’ll want to do tomorrow with today’s data, XML is a safe haven.
Consider the world of networking: In 1985, if you wanted to get networking software, you could use: DECNet (DEC only), SNA (IBM only) and so on. Today, if anyone introduced a new single-vendor networking product, they’d be laughed out of the market. One of the promises of XML is that "proprietary data format" will soon sound as silly as "proprietary networking product."
There are other reasons to author and store XML. Before too long, you’re going to need to deliver data not just to Web browsers but also to PDAs and cell phones. This evolution will require some careful design and advanced technology. But the expansion will be much easier if the data starts out in a format, such as XML, that isn’t predisposed to the browser (or a particular brand of PDA or model of cell phone or even print.)
As for the future: Despite the billions of dollars and lifetimes of effort that have been poured into the Web, it looks and works about the same as in 1995. This can’t last, and XML has a big role to play in several generational changes that are coming.
To buy performance we’re going to have to start getting more mileage out of our desktop machines?using them as more than dumb HTML terminals. Next, we’re going to want visual interfaces to network data, just as we demand a desktop GUI for PC data. Finally, we desperately need smarter search tools than the brute-force word-munchers vendors give us. XML will be the smart data that puts the desktop back to work, the interchange format that drives the network GUI and the meta-data protocol that makes searching less painful.
But from the CIO’s point of view, the lesson XML teaches is to treat your data right, because it’s worth more than you know. XML, for the first time, makes this possible.
Tim Bray is CEO and cofounder of software maker Antarti.ca and is a recognized expert in text search and retrieval. In 1998, he coinvented XML. In 1987 he managed the team charged with developing an indexing technology that could put the contents of the Oxford English Dictionary online and make it searchable.