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What's the future of XML?

by Jack Vaughan

We should know that no technology fits all jobs over all times. But I will admit I thought XML might come close. The ‘X’ stands for ‘eXtensible,’ after all, so it seemed to have a natural mechanism for adaptation.

The idea that it had data-centric, document-centric and program-centric uses was disarming. It was clear it was not a natural developer favorite, of course. It provided the impetus for Web services, SOA, RSS, bioinformatics and much more. But, like Pick or Fortran or other once-popular languages, it is conceivable that XML’s use will at some point decline.

I came to this rumination last week as I caught Yahoo Architect and JSON originator Doug Crockford tell “The JSON Saga” to an audience at The Ajax Experience (TAE) conference hosted in Boston by TechTarget (’s parent company). “The JSON Saga” is not quite up there with “El Cid” or “The Song of Roland” but, in Crockford’s able telling, it is quite a story.

When he discovered JavaScript Object Notation–he shuns the term ‘invented’–it was as a really useful means for browser-server and interservice communication. JSON was kept simple– simple values (numbers, strings, Booleans), simple sequences of values (arrays, vectors, lists) and a simple collection of named values (object, record, struct, hash, proprietary list). Its use continues to grow.

JSON use was driven by Asynchronous JavaScript And XML (Ajax). But, in many ways JSON was a reaction to complexity arising around XML. Such complexity did not make sense in simple Web applications.

The name Ajax was catchy, but, in fact, tons of Ajax apps are written today that never go near XML. The “X” in Ajax is fading. Some would say Ajax and XML have forked. At the same time, those simple Web apps are growing in complexity.

At TAE, Crockford took some shots at XML. He quotes an original XML Working Group Technical Lead, James Clark, saying “Any damn fool could produce a better data format than XML.” Crockford has the right to be critical of XML; he has taken some bitter bashing from those in that camp.

As he surveys the Web as a platform, Crockford sees much that can be accomplished without XML. The upsurge in REpresentational State Transfer (REST) over HTTP shows he is not alone. Yet, XML is at the heart of many software services, and more XML goes into production every day. What do you think is the future of XML?