XML in Action

XML in Action

n this section we’ve begun a dialogue with some people who are on the leading edge of XML within the Web environment. We’re profiling these people, their projects, and their thoughts today and we’ll be following them as time passes and the technology matures. They have important stories to tell. We know we’ve learned from them and we think you will too.

We’re also building a set of profiles about the companies who are building XML tools. Good tools are essential in implementing XML; we’re in the nascent stages right now, but we expect more and better versions will be flowing forth over the upcoming months. In this section these developers share some of their thoughts about XML in general and why they chose to develop for it.

XML Innovator: Jim Armstrong
photo of jim armstrong

“Patience, persistence and quality applications are needed to move XML forward in terms of public acceptance.”

— Jim Armstrong, president, 2112 F/X

2112 F/X provides short-term graphic design services and custom programming. Jim Armstrong is 2112 F/X’s president; we interviewed him in December 1998 and followed up in October 1999.

How and why are you interested in XML?

1998: “Being a techie at heart, I started reading everything I could about XML as soon as I heard about it. I tend to look for ways to immediately use technology as opposed to being cautious. The downside to such an approach is being positioned “too far” ahead of the game.

“In one instance, I introduced an XML application to a prospective client. I hoped they would be enamored with the possibilities of the technology. At the time, data display was only available in IE4. The client wanted something in Java that would be available across a wider range of browsers. In retrospect, the technology was introduced to this company too early.”

1999: “I am always interested in ways to exploit new technology to solve old problems. Equally interesting is the question, ‘what potentially useful capabilities are enabled by a new technology?'”

Tell us about the portfolio viewer?

1998: My first major on-line application was an XML-based graphic arts portfolio viewer. People seem to be interested in artwork created with a particular package such as 3DS MAX, Photoshop, etc. One alternative is to create a database on the server and allow viewers to search for images by keyword. I was curious if something similar could be accomplished on the client side to avoid repeated queries to the server. Such capability would be especially useful for viewers who simply wanted to scroll back and forth between descriptions of Photoshop images.

“It was trivial to describe the portfolio in XML. Using XMLDSO and DHTML, I achieved the desired interactivity with only one hit to the server to parse the XML file.

1999: “The XML portfolio viewer debuted in late November 1998. It was originally placed in an experimental ‘concept’ area of the 2112 F/X site. It was a pure technology presentation with a plain white background and no polish. Now, the XML viewer is more popular than the traditional portfolio presentation! That’s good name recognition for XML, but it means I must go back and make the viewer ‘look’ reasonable. I also need to create a new structure for the XML file to accomodate interest in rich media, not just stills.”

What other XML-based projects have you developed?

1998: “Another project was an extension of a DHTML application that generates JavaScript/DHTML from C++ to perform sparse matrix visualization. A C++ class library gathered data and generated DHTML and JavaScript ‘on the fly.’ Adding XML formatting to the matrix data allowed for easier collation and display of matrix nonzero structure. It is somewhat interesting to know that a nonzero exists at a particular cell in a matrix. It is very interesting to answer the question, ‘why is that nonzero at that location?’

1999: “I still believe that ‘smart’ online displays could benefit from XML. When I visit a traditional store and converse with someone, that person has a fixed amount of knowledge about a product. If I visit an online store, I should be able to interact with the site and extract the same information without placing added strain on the server. A small XML file could contain information regarding Flash demos, detailed product descriptions, QuickTime VR or similar presentations, FAQ lists, cross-sell, sell-up, and related information. DHTML could be used to interactively allow me to zero in on exactly the information I need to make a decision.”

You’ve showed up some DHTML-based games that also use XML?

1999: “That’s another emerging application?the area of interactive educational games. I am working on several DHTML games that present multiple choice questions to a player.

“An area of interest is how to present multiple question sets and strategies to the player without a lot of server interaction. The end user will be an educational institution with lots of potential users, but limited funds for servers.

“It would be fun to write a client-side application that loads a question/answer set dynamically from an XML file. Handling dynamic game attributes on the client side frees the institution from having to create and maintain a server-side database. It also provides a simple, uniform mechanism for describing Q/A sets and strategies.”

What are XML’s advantages?

1999: “The nice thing about XML is that it provides a single mechanism to bring a lot of dissimilar product data into one unified description.

What are the disadvantages of XML?

1998 and 1999: “Same as everything else, making cross-browser display work well!”

What tools are you using for XML?

1998: “I began marking up data by hand, with the assistance of some C++ methods authored specifically for the task of DTD generation and

1999: For browser-based display, XMLDSO and a lot of hand-crafted DHTML are the tools of the moment. XSL and WDDX look interesting, although I have not found time to completely experiment with both. Ultimately, what I want is a simple API to expose the XML tree to JavaScript that works cross-browser. DHTML can do the rest.

What is the future of XML?

1998: “For the web in general, I see XML as an ideal data interchange mechanism. For data sets in which there is some definable structure, XML provides a means to organize that structure.”

In the future, I suspect to see substantial gains in client-side ability to manipulate and display such structure.”

1999: “For e-commerce, I eventually expect some sort of AI capability executed by server-side script. A standard HTML page would be combined with XML and some client-side scripting, allowing the user to probe for additional information. Such technology could be used for sell-ups, special offers, and as a general convenience to the customer, all driven by a common data description methodology.”

What will it take for that to happen, for people to use XML solutions?

1998: “Patience, persistence and quality applications are needed to move XML forward in terms of public acceptance.”

XML Innovator: Aimee Lingman
“To me, XML makes sense. It makes sense in a way that HTML does not. I feel as though we’re all just using HTML because it’s there, not because it’s really doing what we want it to do.”

Name: Aimee Lingman
Company: Sundial Studios
Title: Co-Owner, Project Manager

Silicon Alley-based Sundial Studios is a Web developer/consulting firm. Clients include Club Nautilus, CRC Communications, Web Cinema and Delta Three. Special projects include as Jewish Web Week, and Click on Judaism, as well as holiday promotions, (one of which was a Project Cool sighting): Valentino: A Different Kind of Cupid and Sundial M for Murder. Co-Owner Aimee Lingman (shown here with partner Kevin Beimers) also freelances as a Web Developer for the Sci-Fi channel.

You said you are writing a paper on XML. Why are you doing this?

“I chose to write the paper to move towards an advanced degree with a Canadian University (Lakehead University in Ontario), but the reason I chose XML is because I would be able to use the knowledge with my company, Sundial. I reasoned that I would eventually have to learn XML to continue with web development, so why not learn and get a credit!

“The XML paper is about the history of the web, leading up to the need for XML, and it covers a brief tutorial on how to learn to program in XML. I’ve tried to write the paper so that I could learn from it, if I were to run across it on the web.”

Why did you decide to use XML?

“As a Web developer, I can see XML reaching the same and greater level of popularity as HTML, with many more uses. To me, XML makes sense. it makes sense in a way that HTML does not. I feel as though we’re all just using HTML because it’s there, not because it’s really doing what we want it to do. Now, with XML, the learning curve is slightly higher, but the uses far outweigh this curve.”

“I consider HTML to be like duct tape and now we finally have the tools do do what we’ve been trying to piece together with HTML. It’s (XML) revolutionary and as soon as people realize that, it will spread like wildfire.”

It sounds like you think XML is worth it…but many developers feel the tools for XML aren’t there…and that it is extremely time-consuming.

“It sounds to me as though these developers are forgetting the early days of HTML, or heck, even Java! With any new language, we are going to have a brief period of time where the development tools aren’t there. It’s going to be our support of the language that makes it profitable for companies to develop the software we need. And there are already a few useful tools on the market. Everything is in it’s early stages, of course, but developing quickly. XML makes too much sense and is too useful for us not to move forward. ”

What is the most difficult part of pitching the benefits of XML to potential clients?

“The toughest thing is explaining why we should redevelop a site or spend additional time creating a site with XML. A lot of companies are satisfied with HTML and so why spend the extra money?

“The angle I’ll be taking is that it’s a case of building the house with duct tape or building it with nails and screws. It’ll last longer and you’ll be happier with the final product.”

So what are those benefits?

“The advantages of XML are multiple, but basically, XML allows us to identify data and the contents of a page, as opposed to blindly using HTML to layout the page without specifying what it’s contents are. Sure, we’ve had meta-tags and such, but we all know how true the contents of meta-tags can be sometimes, don’t we!

“But this is not to say that XML is going to be here in the next two months, it’s going to take a while for people to get their heads around the benefits of XML. The biggest problem is that it has to be easy to develop with, and XSL has to be pushed right alongside of XML or else there is that nasty question of “yeah, but what can be done with it?

“My company has several publication clients and I can see us eventually using XML to handle the updating, archiving and searching of those sites. We will, in a sense, finally be putting things into the right file folder in the digital cabinet, instead of in a pile on the floor. It will be quite refreshing! Of course, this process with take time and money, but it will slowly be done.”

What tools are you using for XML?

XML Pro. I’ve found that’s it’s a great beginner’s tool and can really help you stick to valid documents, which is one thing that an HTML coder needs!”

XML Innovator: Doug Copeland
Doug Copeland Sites intent on raw visual appeal will continue to use WYSIWIG editors, but XML in combination with XSL is really exciting for larger sites that have a lot of semi-structured information.”

Name: Doug Copeland
Company: Media Semantics
Title: President

Media Semantics, Inc. is a software R&D firm that develops manipulative and agent-based technology for use in software products. They’ve discovered XML to be useful for creating and organizing complicated structures more efficiently than other technologies. In one current project Media Semantics is working closely with NextBook Corporation, a company that uses an agent-based interface for its multimedia textbooks.

What exactly does your company do?

“We develop custom ActiveX controls that can be embedded in standalone applications or in a Web page. They are display surfaces that allow us to really push the envelope in terms of the user experience. For example, we are currently working on a project in which a user can manipulate mathematical equations in conjunction with an animated instructor character.

How are you using XML?

“We use custom XML tagsets to let our client author just about everything, from annotated text and equations, to user task information and agent scripting information.

“Our use of XML is a little unorthodox, in that we have chosen to compile the XML at author-time, in much the same way that one compiles a C++ program. We do this for performance — our runtime needs to handle huge amounts of XML, and ultimately this data has to be translated to compact structures such as C++ objects and predicates. The overhead of parsing an XML file to thousands of running COM objects (one per XML element) is just too great for us to use the browser’s built-in parser and Document Object Model.

“Compiled binary streams, on the other hand, can be rapidly loaded and acted on by a small and fast runtime. We also do it for authorability. XML seems quite authorable in theory, but it quickly becomes very tedious with needless nesting. The compilation step allows us to do more parsing. For example, our client can write a mathematical equation as “3*X^2 + 2*x-1= 0,” rather than 20 lines of nested elements.

What made you select XML?

“We needed a language in which to efficiently express very complex structure.

We knew the language would have to evolve over time.

“We knew that XML, because of its extensibility, was bound to become very widely adopted.

“Even though we are not overly concerned about interoperability for now, we want to be able to offer support for any useful namespaces and standards that evolve.”

What programs or applications are you using to implement XML?

“We use the standard Microsoft Developer Studio editor, together with our own custom-developed compilers and a linker.”

What’s in the future for XML products?

“I would like to see a syntax coloring and background validation for XML in my editor. I look forward to using an XSL processor if for no other reason than as a sophisticated author-time transformation tool. There is nothing worse than changing the schema and having to revisit large quantities of XML!”

And the future of XML itself?

“I certainly agree with those who evangelize XML as an interchange format, for file formats, EDI-(Electronic Data Interchange) type applications, etc. XML will no doubt be an important part of an emerging type of next-generation distributed ‘web-apps.’

“Sites intent on raw visual appeal will continue to use WYSIWIG editors, but XML in combination with XSL is really exciting for larger sites that have a lot of semi-structured information. An investment in separating content from presentation will pay for itself by making data easier to author and maintain while allowing the presentation to be independently adapted to by different audiences by designers.”

Interview with …

arbortext logo

“We think XML will become a universal medium of information exchange for almost any type of data, whether it’s document information or database information.”

If you come from the SGML world you’re probably quite familiar with ArborText; it’s been in the structured document market for years. Companies like Boeing, Caterpillar, Ford, Grolier Encyclopedia, and Sun Microsystems use this company’s structured editors to apply SGML tags. Now they are moving into the XML world as well. In December 1998 we talked with PG Bartlett, ArborTexts’ VP of Product Marketing.

Q: When did your company make the move from SGML to XML?

We released our support for XML in December, 1997, when we started shipping ADEPT 7. ADEPT 8, the current release, supports both XML and SGML in a native way.

Q: Who are you trying to reach and what role do you see for web designers/developers?

Our target audience is medium and large companies and organizations. Our target users include anyone engaged in formal documentation processes, whether the output is technical manuals, reference books, functional requirements, design specifications, product catalogs, part lists or legal contracts.

Although we’re not aiming at Web publishers, we do have customers whose only target medium is the Web. What distinguishes our customers from other Web publishers is that ours have formal, defined processes that pump through large amounts of information.

Q: What type of support and products do you feel are necessary for implementing XML in the real world?

We’re looking forward to the planned improvements in editing tools, content/document management systems and browsers, but there’s no need to wait–you can get started (with XML) today.

Q: What is the future of XML?

We think XML will become a universal medium of information exchange for almost any type of data, whether it’s document information or database information. We also think that XML will play a key role in the burgeoning knowledge management market, since it has the unique capability to capture formerly implicit information in an explicit way.

Interview with …

extensibility logo

“We see XML schemas as providing the rules of engagement for the new initiative of Web solutions. Our tools empower Internet programmers to make the move from where they are to where they need to go.”

Chapel Hill NC based Extensibility has focused on the task of creating schemas and in June 1999 brought out its XML Authority schema editor. A schema defines the rules of a document or database. DTDs are the current schema of choice for XML documents. In June 1999 we talked with company founder Reid Conrad about schemas and what they mean to web designers and developers.

Q: What exactly is a schema?

XML schemas represent the objects, and their properties and relationships for an XML application. The schema identifies the components and provides the rules by which XML documents are created, validated and processed. Consider XML schemas as the grammar for a customized Internet ready vocabulary.

Q: What’s the difference between a DTD and a schema?

Document type definitions (DTD’s) were derived from SGML and are a component of the XML 1.0 specification. Early on it was clear that DTD’s lacked descriptive capabilities, such as data-typing and inheritance that would enable broader implementation of XML.

Recently, the W3C’s Schema Working Group submitted a working draft detailing a new XML schema standard, the XML Schema Definition Language, (XSDL). XSDL promises to bridge schema requirements for both the structured content and data processing worlds. Note, in the meantime there are three other choices for advanced XML schema formats; XML-Data, SOX and DCD. Microsoft’s current validating XML parser supports XML-Data. We find many people turning to XML-Data today as they await the completion of the XSDL specification.

Q: Should a Web designer need to worry about schemas? Or is it something you consider a programmer’s task?

I wouldn’t say worry, rather embrace. Most serious Web designers will want to define the rules for their XML applications. They are in driver’s seat.

XML schemas provide Web designers a framework to build sophisticated web based applications. Often, these applications will tap existing information systems. We see diverse groups collaborating on schema design and management. Web designers, database programmers and structured document people are coming together with XML. XML schemas enable them to codify a common set of rules to work together.

Q: Some people equate a structured approach with losing creativity. They say having a schema locks you into a way of thinking and prevents you from coming up with new ways to approach information. Is there any truth to this? Can you clarify the relationship between being creative and using a structured approach?

Remember, XML is extensible. Extensibility enables creativity. XML schemas simply enable the creator to codify creativity. Consider that schemas themselves may reflect varying levels of flexibility and you realize that XML schemas represent a framwork for creativity.

On this point, users should also consider creative development techniques. We believe that XML solutions will best be created in an iterative fashion. This is especially the case for ecommerce solutions. As business rules evolve, so should the schemas.

Q: A well-formed XML document doesn’t need a DTD. Do you think it is a good idea include one as a rule of thumb anyway?

Great question. No doubt many XML documents will be processed as well-formed documents. Occassionally, you read “well-formed or valid XML”. We see the need for both. The answer becomes evident when you consider the design, testing and production phases of XML development lifecycles.

The design of an XML schema represents a great starting place in the lifecycle of an XML application. With the components and the rules of an XML application identified, the development lifecycle is accelerated. Moreover, the schema can be shared and reused by others providing the basis for standardization.

As the application is being tested, the schema provides the basis for the test. This gives Web designers a safety net in their XML implementation.

Finally, the need to validate content and process on the Internet is intensifying. We see the trend for more online validation versus less. This is especially the case as ecommerce applications proliferate the Internet. Corporations will want to exchange schemas to facilitate secure transactions.

Q: What made you “buy in” to XML and why did you focus on the schema portion of the process?

Early on, it was clear to us that XML would be huge. It’s ability to provide common ground for accessing and processing diverse forms of content is awesome. At once, it provides Web applications the flexibility and structure lacking today.

We see XML schemas as providing the rules of engagement for the new initiative of Web solutions. Our tools empower Internet programmers to make the move from where they are to where they need to go.

Q: There’s been some talk about DTDs being replaced. Should Web builder hold back on implementing XML solutions until this issue is resolved? Why/why not?

XML is enabling the next generation of Internet applications to exist. This includes e-commerce solutions and weblications. Serious XML initiatives require schemas. Who can wait? Few businesses are willing to miss what XML brings to ecommerce.

When we built XML Authority we knew there would be uncertainty regarding an advanced schema syntax for some time and wanted to reduce the risk of deployment. That’s why XML Authority provides syntax output for all of the potential schema standards including DTD’s, XML-Data (IE-5 level), XSDL, DCD’s and DDML. Our users are getting an edge without the risk.

Interview with …

macromedia's logo

XML is all about separating design from content…

Macromedia is offering XML parsing support in its web editing tool Dreamweaver 2.0. In December 1998 we spoke with Paul Madar, Macromedia’s Vice President of Engineering, about the new Dreamweaver and Macromedia’s vision of XML publishing.

Q: Do you think XML will catch on with developers?

It’s off to an energizing start, it’s going to make an impact on the Web but it remains to be seen how long it’ll take to catch on.

Q: What types of support and products are necessary to get the ball rolling on XML?

That depends on what people ultimately want to use XML for; what the problem is that needs solving. There are a number of possible applications of XML, and they each need different types of servers/tools to help you realize a total solution. And yes, Dreamweaver’s capabilities just play one part in the production.

Q: Why did you include XML support in Dreamweaver?

We’ve always consulted a group of folks that span the gamut of HTML authoring and used their input to create each version of Dreamweaver. Some of these are hard-core folks who were jumping on CSS just as it got out of the gate, and are now doing the same with XML.

When the day is done, a number of our customers want to play with the future of the Web – learn new tricks that’ll make their pages come more alive tomorrow. That’s why we try to add some forward-looking features like CSS over a year ago, and XML today.

Q: What are some of the XML features in Dreamweaver 2.0?

Our support revolves round-trip XML. Dreamweaver 2 allows you to open an XML file, it allows custom property inspectors, and has an XML character set which you can add to or change…it needed to be extensible, since in XML there are an arbitrary number of tags. It also gives you the ability to author XML, as well as XML parsing capability.

XML is all about separating design from content, and since Dream Templates (templates in Dreamweaver that allow only new content to be edited) separate design from content, information from templates can be exported as XML. XML content can also be imported into Dreamweaver templates.

Q: Where do you think XML in general is headed?

Ahhh, my chance at greatness if I predict the future! The hard-liners say that XML will replace HTML. While it’s possible, there’s a ways to go before that’s a reality.

XML inside of HTML isn’t yet a real standard, but it may be a more conservative approach — make certain parts of the page more digestible for machines, while maintaining backward compatibility with the current infrastructure.

I suppose it’s possible for folks to just ignore XML, but I don’t think that’ll happen — XML is a fine format for storing data in an open fashion which is why we use it in several Dreamweaver configuration files.

My iron clad prediction: whatever path XML takes as it grows, develops, and finds its way into designers toolkits, if designers seriously want to use it to create webpages, Macromedia and Dreamweaver will support it. Our business is helping creative people spend less time doing drudge work, and more time creating. Everyone here agrees that listening to our customers and adding the features they ask for is the best way to achieve that.

Interview with …

Microsoft logo

We believe that XML will do for data what HTML did with Web pages.

Microsoft Corporation has heavily participated in the development of tools and resources for XML, participating in XML specification, XSL and X-Schema W3C standards work. In December 1998, we spoke with David Wascha, product manager for the Platform Marketing Group.

Q: Microsoft has really been backing XML. Why is that?

We believe that XML will do for data what HTML did with Web pages.

Q: Do you think XML will catch on with Web Developers and Designers?

Yes, and very soon. I believe people are going to want what you can get from XML–the way of exchanging information–and I think it will certainly catch on…it is important for people to actually see an XML document as well, sometimes, and IE 5.0 allows people to view an XML document. So in the very near future we’ll be seeing a real growth in real world XML applications.

Q: Why did you release XML Notepad free to the public?

Why not? We never intended to sell Notepad. It’s a tool we were using and decided to release it externally…it’s a way to increase the public understanding of XML, to help programmers and developers use XML. It’s a simple program. We wanted to make people aware of XML, and to have access to playing with XML documents…

Q: What other tools are you planning to develop for XML?

IE 5.0 beta 2 [ed note: IE 5.0 is now a shipping product] has significant new functionality for XML. You can view XML, there’s a good deal of XSL support, you can perform queries, there’s CSS and DOM support…it’s good for developers to be able to see and play with XML and IE 5.0 lets this happen. Visual Studio is also planning for XML functionality.


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