XML's challenge is a war of the words
By Jan Stafford
Dr. Charles F. Goldbarb believes that XML will foment revolution by bridging the gap between document and data processing. For this revolution to succeed, however, XML proponents need to rebel against the computer industry's wayward way with words.
"Restore sanity to our vocabulary," Goldfarb urged developers in the opening keynote of the XMLEdge 2001 International XML Conference & Expo in Santa Clara, CA, on Oct. 23. The computer industry has become a Tower of Babel, wherein its builders are impeding progress by constantly coining and discarding phrases, according to Goldfarb, the creator of SGML and leading XML proponent. "We have to be very careful about the terminology we use."
Greed has robbed the industry of its good sense, in some ways. "The high-tech industry seems to have a tendency to abandon English at every possible opportunity," said Goldfarb. "If you can possibly make up a new word for an old idea, then you have a unique market opportunity in which you can be the first mover." Yet, in doing this, the industry has made it difficult to understand what products and technologies really do.
In particular, the stigma attached by the computer industry to old terms, such as document processing, has stymied the development of truly interactive Web applications. Today, "the dollar is associated with the database" and not the document, Goldfarb said. Documents are seen as unimportant, "the stuff clerks take care of," he noted. "I see people going out of their way to not say 'document,' because what they do is the important stuff."
Ironically, there is really no difference between a document and a database. "In both cases, you have to abstract information and...a certain amount of metadata that helps the system understand the meaning and uses of that extracted information." Yet, in the computer industry, there's such a huge difference in approaches to document and data processing "that it starts to look like warfare," he said.
XML, however, could put an end to that war by breaking down the traditional barriers between document and database processing. Interactive Web applications, Goldfarb noted, have characteristics of both. "Running an auction on a Web site is a massive database challenge," he said. "But it's also a massive document processing challenge, because you have to offer all the descriptions of all the products and so on."
XML is revolutionary, because it is based on a free and open standard, Goldbarb said. It frees data from a hostage relationship to particular software. It also frees developers from having to be locked into a single processing paradigm. Most importantly, he said, it frees enterprises from the need for a single monolithic system.
"You will see companies like SAP adopting XML wholeheartedly very soon, because they'll see that you don't need monolithic systems anymore," Goldfarb predicted. "Why bother trying to convert everything to one massive system anymore? Change is the only stability we've got. XML is designed as a set of standards for coping with the unstandardized. This is the most important element of the XML revolution."
Goldfarb urged the development community to use XML correctly. "Try not to think as only a data processing or a document processing person," he said. "Think in terms of the true XML processing paradigm."
In closing, Goldfarb advised IT professionals to be word wary. In choosing products and technologies, "be sure you really know what's going on...and what you're trying to accomplish," he said. "Don't let the sloppy use of terminology in this industry keep you from understanding what's happening."
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