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   Silver Bullets and Partial Solutions

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I've been away from this list for a few days, and a bit thankful for 
that!  I'm not going to try to sort out who said what, and perhaps 
it's all my fault for using the term "self-describing" in a post the 
other day.  Here's my "why XML is a Good Thing, warts and all" 
elevator speech for your consideration:

At the most basic level, XML is simply a standardized syntax, or 
metalanguage for builging languages, for describing labelled trees. 
But such a definition understates the potential of XML just as badly 
as the statement "XML is the silver bullet for interoperability" 
overstates it. "XML" provides not only this rather abstract 
metalanguage, but also a community of experts, tools, examples, and 
associated specifications that provide a substantial percentage of 
the infrastructure that underlies Web-based applications and business 
integration efforts.   

If silver bullets do indeed kill werewolves, XML won't give you one.  
XML is about providing the infrastructure to produce, buy, and sell 
the silver and bullet molds.  If you've got werewolves in your local 
haunted forest, you are a lot better off if you can buy silver and 
bullet molds at quickly and economically than if you have to prospect 
for the silver, mine it, refine it, and mold it into bullets all by 

Let's look at the definition of XML more closely to see why it 
provides this infrastructure: XML is about standardized syntax, 
labels, and trees.  

-- The "standardized syntax" means that you usually don't have to 
write your own grammars and parsers, you can leverage XML.  XML is 
not a perfect or optimal syntax, but it's good enough for most 
purposes, and its limitations for any particular problem are 
generally overwhelmed by the benefits provided by the network effect.

-- The "labels" make it much easier for human readers and simple 
programs to associate a value with a description of what it is all 
about.  This is not a general solution to the (probably insolveable) 
problem of representing the "meaning" of data, but it is a very 
practical solution to real world information exchange problems. C'mon 
folks, there's no "standard" for paper invoices, and they are written 
up using different languages, formats, currencies, and private 
vocabularies for centuries.  I submit that human accounting clerks in 
bureaucratic organizations are not all that much better at pattern 
recognition than modern specialized software can be, and if "labels" 
have taken the world of business as far as it has, that's something 
worth taking seriously.  If formal type systems and ontologies can do 
better, fine ... but I'll believe that when I see it working well in 
widespread practice. 

-- "Trees" mean that an XML document can describe a hierarchical 
package of inter-related information.  This lets XML easily represent 
"documents" and "messages" of the sort that have enabled human and 
organization communication since the invention of paper.  

As individual components, standardized syntax, labels, and trees are 
useful but a bit boring.  For that matter, as individual components, 
HTTP, HTML, and URIs are useful, but a bit boring.  But just as 
putting HTTP, HTML, and URIs together in a single system gave us the 
far-from-boring World Wide Web, XML 1.0 (or even Common XML) is much 
more than the sum of its component parts and can indeed -- salted 
with a bit of hype to get the network effect started, and combined 
with the Web technologies -- provide an awful lot of infrastructure 
for communication and business even without GUI tools, standards for 
every business document, and ever-higher levels of complexity built 
on top of the XML core.   


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