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Binary XML proponents stir the waters

@7168 WASHINGTON -- XML loyalists put the old "strength in numbers" adage to the test last week at XML Conference & Exhibition 2004. There were dissidents in the nation's capital, threatening to turn the XML standard on its ear. Proponents of binary XML, specifically the World Wide Web Consortium's XML Binary Characterization Working Group, are trying to get the W3C to specify a single binary XML format. That's a serious threat to XML 1.0 and its human-readable format, said Michael Leventhal, a member of the working group and senior director of XML products at Tarari Inc., of San Diego.

Leventhal made a lot of people think twice about binary XML during a session at the conference, where he explained there are currently 19 binary XML formats in use today across many industries -- and those industries are going to continue to use binary XML whether or not there's a standard version. In this interview, he explained the potential impact of binary XML on the market and enterprises, and the need for a single standardized format.

Why does talk of binary XML make so many people nervous?
Right now, there are an enormous number of tools, products and applications constructed using XML as it is today -- text XML 1.0. One thing that makes vendors nervous is that this work could invalidate all of those existing applications. The second fear is that XML is seen as very interoperable and transparent. It's human readable, simple and straightforward. People are afraid to lose those qualities. Could you define binary XML?
An off-the-cuff definition is that this is XML at the sacrifice of human readability that encodes XML information in a more efficient way for processing by computer programs. The main concerns are processing speed and compactness.

The use of XML has changed a lot in going from primarily a publishing technology, to being on the network as a substantial portion of network traffic and used in real-time transaction scenarios. In the latter, performance is critical. As more and more of it goes into that type of usage, more processing speed becomes a critical issue. What kind of feedback have you received from users since your presentation at the conference?
More support than I expected. If you look at the XML newsgroups where technical people debate these issues, you're going to find quite a few against it and [some who are] nervous. The audience at the conference is coming from industries where they are experiencing these problems (increased network traffic, high-bandwidth costs). My sense of the temperature is more movement toward acceptance. The strongest voice against looking at binary XML is Microsoft. Microsoft made decision not to participate in the working group, and expressed concern losing the value of current XML and the effect on the applications they've built around it. Microsoft was arguing against this, however, with somewhat of an open mind and listening to the arguments.

Microsoft made decision not to participate in the working group, and expressed concern losing the value of current XML and the effect on the applications they've built around it.

Michael Leventhal
Why do you believe the time is right for a binary XML standard?
Basically, I'd say, look at how much XML is used on the network right now and the rate of increase. The problems implementers are encountering are getting critical.

The mobile industry is the foremost driver of it. In the mobile industry, this is the vision and these are the requirements; one where they cannot do certain things, cannot move forward without binary XML. If the W3C does not recommend a format, they may say, 'We'll do it without them.'

The military has a similar image of a converged network in their domain that includes interesting wireless communication. The third that has adopted binary XML is radio and television because of the cost of bandwidth. Those three have to do this now.

For those examples, compactness is critical, and with low-powered devices like cell phones, PDAs and others with a direct relationship between processing to run applications and how long battery lasts. Is compactness and performance driving the push for binary XML?
Compactness is being driven by the mobile industry. There's an enormous process of convergence going on between the wireless and standard Web and, in this case, the compactness of the transmission -- because of the limited bandwidth -- is a critical issue. Wireless providers have to make it a seamless issue for the user on device. Is there any way to appease those who oppose binary XML?
No.1 is an ironclad guarantee of complete interoperability with the existing software stack and convertibility between binary and text XML. If those are guaranteed, a large measure would be appeased. Sounds like this could revolutionize a lot of things?
This could potentially start making the computing landscape real different -- and that's the point. Changes are coming. What form it takes or whether it reaches the objective of making the Web interoperable is what's in the balance.

FEEDBACK: What's your opinion on whether the need for binary XML is urgent?
Send your feedback to the news team.


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