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Are proprietary formats right for you?

If you're converting content to XML or creating new content using XML, you'll want to read this tip on proprietary formats.

If you have content that you need to convert to XML, or you're considering creating new content using XML, it's entirely valid to raise the question: "Should I use someone's proprietary tools to capture key data or content, or take a standards-based approach?"

My own company has built numerous proprietary DTDs for various XML applications to support online course delivery, testing, and certification. But there's a vendor-designed XML application that does everything our stuff does, and quite a bit more. Let's use this application as a platform to talk about the relative pros and cons of industry standards versus public or official standards. As far as I'm concerned purely proprietary solutions only make sense when other options simply don't exist.

The name of the XML application in question is the Universal Learning Format, or ULF. Basically, the ULF combines a large set of well-known industry and standard formats within a single XML application designed to address and capture most kinds of data related to online learning, testing, certification, and so forth. ULF is the brainchild of Saba Software, Inc., a well-known developer of an online learning development toolset, and a global purveyor of online training systems and services.

In a very tight nutshell, ULF combines the following capabilities, all of which are based on XML :

The real beauty of this set of specifications (available both in SGML DTD and XML Schema form) is that they permit information that uses this markup to cross boundaries between online learning-delivery systems with ease. In a world where products based on online delivery systems from Blackboard, WebCT, and Docent regularly rub shoulders--not to mention products based on Saba's own systems--this capability should mean that content developers can migrate their work freely among all systems that support ULF. Even better, from an institutional point of view, an investment in a learning system from any single vendor need not become a permanent, indissoluble partnership, since using ULF means content can migrate easily to any other system that supports ULF.

Furthermore, Saba Software has built a set of formats for its various ULF constituents using industry-standard SGML or XML applications whenever possible, so that its work need not be characterized as entirely proprietary or vendor-specific. Saba also offers a set of developer toolkits aimed at helping content developers convert content into ULF, as a one-time, one-way transformation. After this step is complete--and I must hasten to add that such work can be difficult, painful, and time-consuming for those who must recast or recreate data to fit any particular XML application container--"learning providers can be confident that their learning libraries are structured for maximum reuse and visibility," to quote directly from Saba Software's toolset Web pages.

To me, this raises some real, tough questions that surround any conversion of content from existing formats into XML based formats:

  • How much work does conversion entail? What costs and efforts are involved?
  • Can target XML containers handle all data related to course content in hand, or must XML DTDs or Schemas be extended to accommodate rich media formats such as audio, video, multi-media, animations, and so forth?
  • While it's reasonable to assume that Saba's content delivery platform understands and uses ULF, how does ULF work for other online delivery platforms? Here again, the idea is to keep one's content from getting entangled in platform dependencies.

Alas, what this really means is that although any data becomes more portable and easier to move from one platform to another when converted to or captured in XML, it's not always as "automagic" to move content from one delivery platform to another as you might think or hope. Those who develop large collections of content of any kind should remember this as they consider adopting content capture and management systems of many kinds, most of which tout some kind of XML support these days.

While I plan to investigate ULF further in terms of its re-use and portability capabilities, I hope I've made it clear that healthy skepticism is required when analyzing vendor claims about characteristics such as re-use and portability. In general, the reason that official standards have great appeal is that they sidestep potential issues related to vendor-specific implementations and limitations in favor of data capture that may be less powerful or less capable, but also far less dependent on particular, specific implementations. That's why I would become more excited if ULF were in the hands of some standards body like the W3C, IETF, IEEE, or another such organization, rather than in the hands of a vendor whose primary concerns are to deliver shareholder value and maximize its bottom line.

Nevertheless, ULF comes as close to meeting the needs for information capture, management, and manipulation for online learning and certification as anything I've yet found. I'll be curious to learn more about it, and to better understand how it plays into making learning content and related information easier to re-use and to transport from one delivery platform to another. Expect to hear from me on this topic again!

In the meantime, please check out for a great entry point into a fascinating collection of learning content, capture, conversion, and management capabilities, all based on XML applications.

Ed Tittel is a principal at LANWrights, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of LANWrights offers training, writing, and consulting services on Internet, networking, and Web topics (including XML and XHTML), plus various IT certifications (Microsoft, Sun/Java, and Prosoft/CIW). Send an e-mail to Ed at if you have questions on this or other XML topics.

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Related Book

Enterprise XML Clearly Explained 
Author : Robert Standefer
Publisher : Morgan Kaufmann
Published : Dec 2000
XML creates interoperability and more integrated systems for any complex computer system. In Enterprise XML Clearly Explained, computer specialist Robert Standefer shows you how to implement XML in enterprise applications such as data warehousing, databases, electronic commerce, and the simplification of data retrieval.


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