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seduced by markup

I've been trying to figure out why I so deeply loathe the programmers who regard markup as something to hide behind their tools, a mere lubricant to the conversations they would have had anyway.

It's not just XML - this is a constant problem in the HTML world as well. Sometimes it leads to perverse programming styles within web applications, and sometimes it leads to bizarre decision making by the people creating browsers and standards.

I think my problem - and it is _my_ problem - is that I spent too much time looking at and enjoying markup before the rest of the world got around to piling logic on top of it.

In the early days of HTML, and even CSS, it became clear pretty quickly that there were sane and insane ways to use markup. Even when I was first writing about Dynamic HTML, starting from a clean document made everything so much easier. (That's a key reason why XHTML got traction among at least part of the Web community, too.)

When I first got to XML, the markup was still primary and the processing an afterthought. Get the markup right, for many different values of right, of course, and the processing will be manageable.

At some point, maybe around the time of the Microsoft "he doesn't know what XML is" ad, that story flipped. XML was incredibly useful, but as the servant of programmers. XML structures suddenly had to look like programming structures, because nothing else could be trusted. They could look a little different, because after all programmers from different environments had different expectations, but Schemas and WSDL and similar structured approaches dominated.

(RDF also had a painful role in that story, inflicting URIs on XML namespaces and leading to many thousands of unanswerable questions and corner cases. By the time the RDF folks had realized that XML's text trees never really were a good fit for their abstract graphs, though, the damage was done.)

The data hygiene and mental hygiene of programming are not appropriate for markup. Programming and markup have connections, much like carpentry and plumbing, but their best practices are very different.

I suspect that the current brokenness of XML comes from markup values having been buried under a pile of programming values, with XML Schema the most visible landmark of that. Programmers see schemas and expect XML to conform to their expectations, but reality has never quite conformed.

In any event, I'm well-aware that I'm losing this battle, on both the HTML and XML fronts. Whether it's single-page apps or schema-driven query systems, programmers gotta program. Much of the rest of my work is about helping them do that.

Still, I dream of a strange world where more folks actually recognized the value of markup, of annotating text with structured labels that act as guideposts. It's useful stuff.

(And I should note that my initial encounter with markup was via HyTime, which I pretty instantly bounced off. The models didn't connect clearly enough to the text...)

Simon St.Laurent

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