Microsoft to the XSL(T) Rescue?
By Ed Tittel
Like most serious XML developers, I have a love/hate relationship with Microsoft. And I must confess that a big, fat, juicy target for slams and snide remarks--as Microsoft can so often be--is hard to resist. That's why I'm puzzled and bedazzled by a truly brilliant piece of freeware that's readily available on the Microsoft Web site, that should be a boon to XML developers with an interest in the Transformations flavor of the eXtensible Style Language, aka XSL(T) or XSLT. The software will show you how XSLT works, and what the results of an XSLT transformation are.
What I'm talking about here is a magnificent learning tool. It permits users to examine a given XML source document, apply any possible XSLT transformation (and view the relevant XSLT code that does the job), then view the HTML output that results. In other words, this tool takes a reasonably complex XML document, applies the full gamut of XSLT functions and operations to its content to transform it into HTML, and lets you view the resulting HTML code as well. It's simply brilliant, and provides the best working demonstration of anything related to XSLT in operation I've seen anywhere. It's as if Walt Disney took Michael Kay's outstanding Wrox book XSLT Programmer's Reference (Copyright 2000, Birmingham, UK, ISBN: 1-861003-12-9) and turned it into a beautiful animated cartoon on a par with Fantasia.
Who could possibly ask for a better learning tool than this? The only other resource I know of that comes close is Jiri Jirat's "XML Tracer" (visit http://www.zvon.org/xxl/XSLTracer/Output/introduction.html for a look at this little gem) and it doesn't begin to capture the capabilities that this free Microsoft tool--and let me state again how weird I feel saying those final three words in quick succession--delivers.
Enough suspense already: here's how you can grab a copy of this wonderful tool for your own use:
- Visit http://msdn.microsoft.com/xml/default.asp
- Select "XML Downloads" from the left-hand menu
- Select "XSL" under the "XML" menu category
- Select "XSLT Samples Viewer" under the "XSL" menu category
- Click the download button in the right-hand pane on the resulting Web page
Note: you must also install the MSXML 3.0 Parser (and run it in "Replace mode") to see what the XSLT Samples Viewer can do. For more details on this latter process--which will come in mighty handy if you want to view native XML files through Internet Explorer anyway--please visit http://msdn.microsoft.com/xml/general/replacemode.asp.
I don't want to spoil the magnificent surprise that awaits you when you open the file named "viewer.htm" in a properly-equipped version of Internet Explorer 5.0 or later. I'm running IE 5.5 with SP1 installed; for best results, I suggest you do the same. But the results are truly wonderful, as you examine the XML source, apply an XSLT transformation, and witness the HTML results. The amount of work that Microsoft put into this tool is astonishing, and its value as a learning tool is no less significant. Nobody who's thinking about storing data in XML and transforming it into HTML on the fly--and who isn't these days?--should be without this tool.
Have fun! Be prepared to lose some SERIOUS time, as you "try just one more" transformation, to see what happens next.
Ed Tittel is a principal at LANWrights, Inc.: a wholly owned subsidiary of LeapIt.com. 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).