XML gets X-rated

XML is one of those technologies that usually goes about its business quietly, with hardly anyone noticing (a bit like me, I like to think). It is widely used for the exchange of data between applications and systems and it also provides the foundation of XHTML, the latest version of the mark up language that underpins millions of webpages. Recently, though, things in the XML world have got a bit heated, to say the least, and are likely to get more so in the next month or two. A new technical report by Walter Ditch, published by the UK universities’ JISC, and which I was involved with publishing, sets out to explain why.

It’s all to do with the seemingly mundane subject of how a computer goes about saving a word processed document or spreadsheet file and, in particular, which ‘flavour’ (format) of XML it should use.

The latest thing is to use modern XML-based formats in the same way that webpages do—a process that is partly being driven by various governments around the world. The rationale is that public sector organisations, which are funded by tax payers’ money, should not be ‘forcing’ those self-same tax payers to buy a particular vendor’s software in order to read a public document.

For example, if you download a form from a government website to fill in, you should be able to complete it and send it back without having to buy software from any one particular vendor. In fact, you shouldn’t have to buy any software at all – you should be able to use one of the free software packages that are available. In effect, what they’re saying is that government agencies should not put technical and financial barriers in the way of citizens being able to exercise their rights and undertake their responsibilities as members of the public.

The reason why XML is important in all this is because it treats the core information (the bit you put in) separately from all the other gubbins (how it will be displayed using any one particular software package). This means that you (or the person you send it to) should be able to extract your information easily, regardless of which software package was used to create it. The key to all of this is how ‘open’ the flavour of XML is, that is used by your particular software package. And openness is very tricky thing.

Unfortunately, there is currently quite a searing debate about which particular XML format all these software packages should make use of and which standard they should use. The two contenders are OOXML and ODF. I won’t go into all the details here, but if you’re vaguely interested you could try reading the report—it’s not as scary as it might sound.

From my point of view, as the technical editor of the report and having to deal with comments from peer reviewers, what was interesting was the level of detail we had to go into over matters that could normally be dispatched in a few sentences. Things like the order in which events happened, the precise details of standards and software versions, names of products, companies behind the names, and even changes to names, were all areas of contention. It’s an indication of how deeply these issues are felt and how bitter the XML standardisation battle has become. It really is a war of words.

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One Response to “XML gets X-rated”

  1. Buzzword Review « Tech Lunch Says:

    […] full test. This is actually a very important issue (honestly!) and one that I mentioned recently in my coverage of a report I worked on for JISC. If users are not careful, the introduction of Web-based office […]

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