Just how large was the XML revolution?

By Simon St. Laurent
August 12, 2008 | Comments: 2

In a talk that he'd contemplated naming "XML as the precipitating factor in the upcoming religious wars," Eduardo Gutentag examined how XML participated in, or even started, a revolution that most of the world didn't notice. Gutentag quoted Jon Bosak early on, talking about XML's "revolutionary potential to free users from the tyranny of proprietary publishing formats.... doing the right thing will become the majority view."

(I kind of talked about this at OSCON in 2001, but don't think that got much notice. I don't think a lot of people outside of the XML world actually noticed when Jon Bosak said it, either, but maybe this talk will help push that idea further.)

Gutentag also talked about parallel developments - the rise of Linux in the 1990s, and its breaking out beyond a tightly technical niche even as the dot-com bust was in progress. Perhaps the collapse led to additional fondness for its zero cost, contrasting even better with its expensive predecessors. At the same time, StarOffice was percolating, developing into OpenOffice. It's not just a matter of mixing Open Source with open formats, though - Gutentag pushed a more radical thesis, that the openness of the OpenOffice format made its adoption more attractive to the open source community, which in turn enabled them to work more within their open source environment. Users could escape the dominance of Microsoft Office - not simply escaping its costs, but giving them much more flexible access to their own information.

Gutentag also raised the question of intellectual property, the clash between developers creating code and content without concern for patents at the same time that many companies and lawyers were pushing hard for more and more patents, claiming that intellectual property was the motivation for innovation. Gutentag speculated that we may be getting to a point where "The ownership of an idea is not necessarily vested upon the person who came up with it but upon the community that needs it."

Looking forward, Gutentag prophesied that "The very concept of a static document may simply vanish. You start it, but anybody can continue it, change it, modify it, contribute to it, "own" it." He wondered if this would be a "return to the Middle Ages" - an anonymous cooperative approach often seen in wikis and perhaps even Facebook wallpapers.

Despite the Middle Ages reference, this feels to me like a huge step forward, though undoubtedly some folks will see it as a step backward. I'll confess that I don't see XML as the driving force in this revolution, though it's certainly moving along in the same tide - and I'm hopeful about the results.

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Not very. It was an expression of a natural order.

The idea preceded XML but you and Jon both know that. It was built into SGML but didn't originate there. It was built into the networked community and the idea that the Library of Alexandria could be rebuilt. To some degree it has. On the other hand, it also produced the one-link to Rick Astley sites.

The intellectual property as community-effort feels good. It can produce good results. The 15 years of effort to keep VRML alive produced X3D and that is now producing a healthy standard where massive efforts from big companies have failed and in spite of the efforts of the Apple community and others to destroy it. Sometimes it isn't the pervasive kumbayah but the reality of the threats of communities to other communities that produces cohesion. This junkyard dog effect of mixing the elite cultivar with the genes found in the wild is proven in biology and I believe it is proven in information systems.

Wikipedia is a good example of the mixed results. The various editing policies are examples of filters that are created by authorities who appoint themselves and thus create and enforce the template of their own expertise and opinion. What is a schema but as has been said, an opinion about a document?

That captcha at the bottom of this comment box is an example of tests that have evolved to protect locales from the predations of other locales.

IOW, the personality of the community and their values plus the circumstances of the environment determine the qualities. Sometimes group songs are hits; most of the time they are goo. Do it enough times and there will be one hit for every nine bits of album filler. Look at the group building of Second Life and many social networks. How much of that is compelling art and how much of it is self-absorbed trivia?

... writing from the tunnels beneath the ruins of the city.

Thanks for sharing this, Simon -- informative.

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