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   XML-DEV and Interoperability (Re: Offtopic: Web Standards Project)

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  • From: Peter Murray-Rust <peter@ursus.demon.co.uk>
  • To: xml-dev@ic.ac.uk
  • Date: Sun, 09 Aug 1998 10:08:06

At 19:18 08/08/98 -0400, Steven Champeon wrote:
>On Sat, 8 Aug 1998, Tim Bray wrote:
>> Well, IMHO, the W3C has done its job in getting some potentially useful
>> standards published.  The W3C has not been effective as an advocacy or
>> bully-pulpit organization, and it's hard to see that happening, in part
>> because of some of the reasons raised by Eliot.
>We've got a long road ahead of us, though, and I think we're aware of that.

I take these as the starting points for some comments on how XML-DEV might
be involved in helping the cause of interoperability. [As always I feel
it's important to stick fairly closely things related to
implementation....]. A lot of people seem to be waiting for major browser
m'facturers to come out with (free) shrink-wrapped browser/editors for XML,
and doubtless that will happen in the medium-term.  

However XML is much more than browsers and editors (though that is where
the current interest/hype is). For many activities and domains it
represents an attractive way of laying the infrastructure of the
information. A particularly good example of this is MathML (BTW a
W3C-supported activity). The attraction and value of MathML is obvious and
it seems likely that it will suffer from few problems of interoperability.
Why should anyone create a MathML-aware tool that wasn't interoperable?
Primarily through ignorance or incompetence, rather than an attempt to
split the 'maths market'. A particularly important point is that the
American Mathematical Society has been intimately involved with the effort
(as it was with TeX).

My point, therefore, is that there are many other aspects of XML than
browsers. Certainly there will be a huge market for XML tools that can
provide structured text, marked up and restylable. But there is also an
enormous opportunity for specific subject areas to develop applications
independently of, but interoperable with, browser technology. [It's not
essential to have an XML browser/editor to work with MathML and it's
probably even less important for CML - the MIME-based helper application or
java classes can still do a huge amount without the XML being part of the

An additional  model of XML, therefore, is lots of independent but
interoperable components in different domains. This may take a year or two
to develop, but I think it's unstoppable. Thus, for example, I see XML as
becoming a de facto standard in healthcare and, HenryR and I hope, in
chemistry. Even if XML didn't succeed as the next generation of browsers
(and I think it will), XML would still have to be invented for the domains.
What are the alternatives? I can think of:
	- LISP (I suspect there are less than 10 chemists worldwide who would
seriously consider this and perhaps 1 might try to implement it).
	- CORBA/Java. This is attractive for communities with well-established
informatics operations which wish to interoperate. A good example is
biology - all the major international and national genome and protein sites
are tooling up to provide CORBA-based services. XML is yet to surface. CML
and BSML are the only initiatives and they are relatively minor. The main
problem with CORBA is that there is a long learning curve. Moreover
interoperability is (I think) provided through fairly central global
coordination - the IDLs are agreed at international level and I suspect
that objects from a different domain will find it extremely difficult to
interoperate with Bio-objects and vice versa. [XML has an enormous
advantage here.]
Moreover very few people would happily author a document using CORBA-based
	- Legacy/binary/obfuscated software. This is the preferred current
solution. I recently got a list of molecules which I cannot read because
they are in binary, platform-dependent and goodness knows what else. The
software is apparently the 'industry-standard'.

For me, XML is the only way to go for chemistry. Even if I designed
something from scratch it would still be XML. (probably XML-lite, because
XML is too complex for chemists). Therefore I see it as inevitable that
some day chemistry will alight on XML as the preferred solution for
interchanging information. [There will also be CORBA as well, but much less.]

So my real question is 'how can HenryR and I get horizontal support for
this effort'?
(We are obviously working on vertical support). Where can we look to in the
XML community for help to make CML take off?
	- probably not the W3C as such because chemistry is probably not a core
discipline for it (maths is). I don't know whether W3C has any initiatives
in promoting XML other than for horizontal web activities. [My argument
(above) would suggest that a lot of individual domain-based activities
would be valuable supporting material for W3C].
	- OASIS. They clearly have a strong interest in getting XML widely used.
But, AIUI, they are primarily a vendor-based organisation. Are they likely
to support vertical areas? Do they have an information pack I can use to
help sell XML to chemists?
	- OMG. OMG have specialist domain areas (for chemistry it is (LSR) Life
Science Research.) I talked last week with the domain specialist there and
she and I have agreed to collaborate since we are both likely to find this
a hard road and we certainly don't wish to compete. Objects can lead to
documents and vice versa. I'd be very grateful for any authoritative
statement on the relationship between UML and XML - I know there is
something, but how important is it?
	- WSP. Presumably not directly. But perhaps membership from a large number
of small domains with credible activities would help.
	- FSF/GNU. Unlikely for chemistry. But I still have hopes that in a year
or two there will be major communal tools for XML from this sort of
activity. If I want a C++ compiler I use g++. If I want UNIX I use Linux.
I'd very much like to see XML-DEV helping in this sort of thing for XML.
But remember that g++ and Linux have succeeded after the chaos of
non-interoperability, not before. It also took considerable time. I think
history may repeat itself here, and we have to keep the flame burning.

An aside: I am relatively surprised how few academics there are on XML-DEV.
This is an area where (I would have thought) there is a lot of potential. I
haven't looked at the membership list but most seem to be *.com or *.net
(the latter are presumably individuals with a forbidden passion for XML
independent of their employment). Academia, though apparently powerless in
the face of commercial interests and lacking the resources for
shrink-wrapped development, must nevertheless make vital contributions to
new disciplines.


Peter Murray-Rust, Director Virtual School of Molecular Sciences, domestic
net connection
VSMS http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/vsms, Virtual Hyperglossary

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