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   facts, conclusions, and exhortations re XML (long)

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  • From: "Steven R. Newcomb" <srn@techno.com>
  • To: xml-dev@ic.ac.uk
  • Date: Sat, 20 Nov 1999 19:11:26 -0600

>From an internal Microsoft memo (I copied this material from

  Open Source Software (OSS) projects have been able to gain a
  foothold in many server applications because of the wide utility of
  highly commoditized, simple protocols. By extending these protocols
  and developing new protocols, [Microsoft] can deny OSS projects
  entry into the market.

Open source is just one very small segment of the marketplace that is
being deliberately poisoned by Microsoft's efforts to "de-commoditize"
the protocols and services on which business relies.  I believe the
economic and social benefits of XML are all at stake here.  XML, as a
general-purpose markup syntax, can succeed wildly in the marketplace
even while the bulk of the potential benefit of XML -- human
productivity enhancement by the competitive operation of an open
market for information services -- is in the process of being snatched
from humanity's grasp by a single U.S. corporation.  It is not enough
that XML can be parsed everywhere by everyone.  The potential benefit
of XML is that it will allow any *knowledge* to be transferred by
anyone to anyone else.  That can only happen under one of two

* if the protocols and services that enable knowledge transfer are
  commoditized (virtually all people who love the Web prefer this
  possibility), or

* if all the important protocols and services are totally controlled
  by a worldwide de facto monopoly (Microsoft prefers this
  possibility, as long as the monopoly belongs to Microsoft).

I ran across more evidence of Microsoft's anticompetitive behavior
recently.  Most of you probably already knew about it.  XPath, as
implemented by Microsoft, provides access to the first node of any
nodelist as the zeroeth node (the node in the list that is addressed
by an array index value of 0), while the relevant W3C draft requires
it to be the first (index value of 1) node.  This means that with
Microsoft's implementations, no node (i.e., no information component)
address that is based on nodelist position will be resolved to the
same node that any strict W3C implementation would resolve it to.
This means that XSL stylesheets that use this feature of XPath will
not function the same way on IE5 as they will on W3C-conforming
browsers.  If this is an example of the "de-commoditization of
protocols and services" game that Microsoft is playing, an off-by-one
difference is both simple and effective.  Stylesheets can be written
in standard XSL and XML (so any validation process will regard them as
perfectly valid), but, even so, they can't reliably cross the border
between Microsoft-land and W3C-land, in either direction.  Thus,
Microsoft de-commoditizes stylesheet services, while relying on its
market dominance to keep and protect its market dominance.  This is a
Bad Thing For Everyone.

I believe that the primary purpose of XML is precisely to commoditize
information interchange services, for the purpose of making universal
information interchange practical, without requiring that the world
submits to an authoritarian IT regime like Microsoft's.  Effectively
"de-commoditizing" the use of XML is precisely what Microsoft (and
other technology businesses than gain power on the scale of
Microsoft's) will always attempt to do.

We XML developers have a moral obligation to recognize and report that
the de-commodization of XML is Microsoft's self-evident and documented
strategy, and that it is a strategy intended to cause Microsoft to win
while causing the public to lose.  It is a strategy born of
unimaginative, pessimistic and fearful zero-sum thinking.  Thus,
Microsoft demonstrates that it is unworthy to have so much influence
over civilization's future directions.

The only weapon we have against Microsoft's abuse of the public's
confidence is the truth.  The truth is also the only weapon that's
needed.  Let us wield that weapon vigorously.  If you feel that you
can't tell the truth about Microsoft's deliberate undermining of the
goals of the XML community without incurring financial or other costs,
I'd ask you to consider the following questions:

(1) Will lying or truth-telling be more costly for you?  (Consider
    *all* the costs of lying and/or remaining silent, including the
    cost in self-respect.)

(2) It is absolutely certain that someday you will die, at which point
    you will have no money and no further ability to make any choices
    at all.  You will leave behind only the lingering effects of how
    you chose to live your life.  Will you leave behind a world that's
    better or worse on account of the role you chose to play in its
    ever-unfolding story?  Will humanity be richer, or will it be
    poorer?  Specifically, will people have more useful access to
    their heritage as human beings (i.e., information and knowledge),
    or less?  That's what's at stake here, no more and no less.  If
    you don't believe that what you do (or don't do) will make any
    difference to future generations, you are mistaken.  You are an
    XML developer!

Below are some excerpts from "The Present Crisis" by James Russell
Lowell (1819-1891).  This poem had considerable impact on much of the
U.S. public's conscience just prior to the American Civil War.  (Some
of its verses later turned up in at least one popular Protestant hymn,
"Once to Ev'ry Man and Nation".)  Lowell was urging brave action in
opposition to the institution of human slavery, but "The Present
Crisis" covers much more territory than that.  There is always a
"Present Crisis".  No generation can avoid deciding which "ancient
goods" have now become "uncouth".

   Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,--
   Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
   Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
   We see dimly in the Present what is small and what is great,
   Slow of faith how weak an arm may turn the iron help of fate,
   But the soul is still oracular; amid the market's din,
   List the ominous stern whisper from the Delphic cave within,--
   ``They enslave their children's children who make compromise with sin.''
   They have rights who dare maintain them; we are traitors to our sires,
   Smothering in their holy ashes Freedom's new-lit altar fires;
   Shall we make their creed our jailor? Shall we, in our haste to slay,
   From the tombs of the old prophets steal the funeral lamps away
   To light up the martyr-fagots round the prophets of today?
   New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
   They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth;
   Lo, before us gleam her camp-fires! we ourselves must Pilgrims be,
   Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea,
   Nor attempt the Future's portal with the Past's blood-rusted key.
Why do I quote from "The Present Crisis"?  It's because I'm asking you
to consider: How should an information economy (which is quite
obviously, at least in this Present Crisis, "the Future's portal")
work, actually?  What is the role of XML in bringing about an
information economy that maximizes the opportunities available to
everyone, and that maximizes the possibility than everyone can benefit
from everyone's exploitation of those opportunities?  What roles
should major corporations have, and what would constitute abuses of
their power?  Perhaps most importantly, what constitutes public
education in a technological milieu where the best teachers can
enormously increase their own productivity?

In a worldwide information economy, information reform certainly just
as important as land reform has ever been in any previous human
civilization or economy.  Who will work the land (create and maintain
information), who will collect the taxes, and who will provide the
services?  How will innovation be encouraged, protected, accommodated,
and benefitted from?

One way to pay taxes is to be forced to buy new software every few
years.  But what if the services that the taxes are supposed to pay
for are suboptimal, or distributed unfairly or unwisely?  What if the
tax collectors line their own pockets with obscene amounts of money
and power, at the worldwide public's involuntary expense?  Terrible
wars have been declared and fought over much less.  Will we have to
undergo a second Great Depression, or worse, before we'll figure out
how to organize and operate the information/knowledge equivalents of
the priesthoods of the Federal Reserve Bank or the International
Monetary Fund?

My wish and exhortation is that all XML developers would proclaim:

  "Information owners and users of the world, unite!  Insist that the
   software and systems you buy are built to guarantee that the value
   of your information cannot be diminished merely by technological
   change, or by the caprices of would-be world dominators (in Redmond
   or elsewhere), or by the fortunes of your software providers.
   Quite literally, you have nothing to lose but the product
   differentiation barriers that jeopardize your economic security and


Steven R. Newcomb, President, TechnoTeacher, Inc.
srn@techno.com  http://www.techno.com  ftp.techno.com

voice: +1 972 517 7954  <<-- new phone number
fax    +1 972 517 4571  <<-- new fax number
pager (150 characters max): srn-page@techno.com

Suite 211               <<-- new address
7101 Chase Oaks Boulevard 
Plano, Texas 75025 USA

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