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XML's challenge is a war on words

The founder of Standard Generalized Markup Language said the lack of clear language in the high tech industry could be its downfall.


By Jan Stafford

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Dr. Charles F. Goldfarb believes that Extensible Markup Language 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, he told developers at the XMLEdge 2001 International XML Conference & Expo which opened Tuesday.

"Restore sanity to our vocabulary," he said.

The creator of Standard Generalized Markup Language and a leading XML proponent, Goldfarb warned that the computer industry has become a Tower of Babel. Its builders are impeding progress by constantly coining and discarding phrases.

"We have to be very careful about the terminology we use," he said.

Greed has robbed the industry of its good sense, in some ways, he said.


"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 actually do.

Industry shuns standard terms

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 said.

"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, he said.

"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," he said.

Goldfarb said XML could put an end to that by breaking down the traditional barriers between document and database processing. Interactive Web applications have characteristics of both, he said.

"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 liberating

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 businesses from single monolithic systems.

He said he expects companies such SAP will start adopting XML wholeheartedly very soon, once they realize monolithic systems are no longer necessary.

"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," he said.

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 while choosing products and technologies.

"Don't let the sloppy use of terminology in this industry keep you from understanding what's happening, " he said.



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