11 February 2008


XML turns ten

Tim Bray, who was involved in it all and who lives here in Vancouver, wrote a good story about the beginnings of XML (eXtensible Markup Language), which is the foundation of a lot of how the Web works today. It's a reason that Navarik, the company I work for, has a business, for instance. His story talks about the people who helped make it happen, which is why it's a good story.

At the beginning of his piece, Tim wrote, "XML is ten years old today," because version 1.0 was officially released on February 10, 1998, a few days before my older daughter was born, and during the Nagano Winter Olympics. The specification had been kicking around in draft form for about a year and a half before then.

XML is a powerful way to make information readable and writeable both by computers and by people—and also, most critically, to make it portable between different kinds of devices over different kinds of information networks. In its simplest form, it is merely a well-structured way to format plain-text computer files. And it is an open standard, so no one has to license it or pay for it: you can just use it.

So now you can work with a web browser or a feedreader or another website to grab a web feed from a blog and read or republish it elsewhere. And big companies can wrestle their ancient mainframe computers into sending and accepting data from technologies that hadn't been invented when they were built, like web applications. When you read this website or make an airline reservation or buy a T-shirt online or check your webmail or update your bank balance, XML is involved.

It's one of the key standards that emerged from the dot-com bubble, and has helped the Internet become an essential utility around the world. Not bad for a ten year old.

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I find it interesting, given how old XML is and how many APIs there are for reading and writing it, that companies still want to send comma-separated value/plain text files of data. Sigh.
It's not that surprising, since people who use Microsoft Excel have been importing and exporting CSV files forever. What's stunning is how many companies, even huge ones, run big chunks of their business with fragile linked Excel spreadsheets.