XML guru: ‘Let the thousand flowers bloom’

In five years, 75 per cent of all new documents worldwide will be created in XML, according to the so-called XML guru who made a stop at Microsoft Canada’s headquarters in Mississauga, Ont., Thursday.

Jean Paoli, one of the XML

1.0 standard co-creators with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and Microsoft senior architect, made this prediction based on the growing number of developers using XML since the XML schema was made available for Microsoft Office 2003 when it launched two years ago.

Around the same time as Microsoft’s first Office developer conference in Redmond, Wash., in February, Microsoft released the results of an internal survey that revealed that one million developers were building solutions on top of Office. Out of that number, one third are using XML functionalities shipped in Microsoft Office 2003, said Paoli, who left his native Paris for a job with Microsoft in 1996 after he told the software maker that the HTML standard was not good enough for the Internet. A couple of months after that XML was born.

ITBusiness.ca: How did you come up with the concept for Infopath?

Jean Paoli: At the end of the day you are on the Internet and you work in a connected environment. That’s when I moved to Office and started the Infopath product and the overhaulled XML architecture of Office 2003. Think about it as a revolution in documents. The way we think about documents now is very different than it was before. Take the example of a credit company doing credit approval using XML. Go to a bank and ask for credit. The clerk asks for your name, how much you want, etc. They are using Infopath to do that. Information doesn’t stay in the document. The information is extracted and then it goes to a database. Then somebody else and looks at that information in order to approve the application and generate a proposal to give the person the amount of credit. The most important thing was that this kind of interchange works across platforms.

ITB: The W3C recently suggested dealing with XML’s occasional slowness by saving XML data in binary rather than text format. Some think this may cause interoperability problems. What’s your opinion?

JP: (Microsoft) believes it’s impossible to create one binary standard for XML. We know that sometimes there is some slowness but the problem is we don’t think there is one solution that fits all. We need multiple ways of optimizing (XML). That’s where we’re in disagreement with the recommendation here. We believe that existing solutions can be used. For example, XOP is a way of sending images alongside an XML file using existing standards. Sometimes the existing solution is not good enough so we think that’s another problem that could be solved by multiple solutions. There are a lot of conflicting requirements going on. It’s too simple just to say let’s do binary. The other problem is interoperability. Finally we have something that is implemented everywhere – IBM, Sun, Linux, Open Source, Microsoft. I don’t want to go and break this. This would be irresponsible from the industry.

ITB: Microsoft reportedly has decided not to support XML 1.1 standard due to concerns that it won’t work with applications that use XML 1.0. What’s Microsoft’s reasoning behind this?

JP: It’s not like it’s bad. We want a very stable standard. Interoperability is our number one concern. It is between the two separate worlds, data and documents. Both now support XML 1.0.

ITB: Why should XML authors move away from document type definitions and use the newer XML schema standard?

JP: The new one contains everything the old one had plus more. I don’t think there’s anything controversial in any way or form. Document type definition came from HTML 20 years ago. We put it in XML in 1996 because we didn’t have time to do the new thing. Then we put it in and it was very simple but once the industry started developing around XML we started doing a lot of standards like name spaces. The usage of XML became huge with databases. Data has a lot of data types. We needed more functionalities. Forty companies or more – Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Sun – went together for three years and hashed out this standard which was ratified three or four years ago.

ITB:When XML was created, it was created to solve interoperability issues. But wouldn’t these new specialized forms create more interoperability issues?

JP: No. I believe, let the thousand flowers bloom. The problem is not that. The problem is who you want to work with. Say you are in the marketing department and you have five people that you want to work with. At the level of the company, you can say purchase orders are done this way. Then you want to work on tax forms in Toronto. Tax forms are different in Toronto than they are in Paris. That’s why we call is custom schemas. It’s not custom to Microsoft, it’s custom to your business. Those documents belong in their vocabulary.

ITB:What opportunities exist for developers building software using XML down the road?

JP: There are four opportunities for the software industry. The first one is to have tools to become better at creating content in XML. Number two opportunity is ways of storing XML and analyzing XML. The third one is workflow. Because we are going to have 75 per cent of documents in XML, there are a lot of opportunities for workflow software that enables end users to set up that workflow. The last one is privacy. Those documents are in an open format — it means that software can come and do a lot of business around it. It was far more difficult to do that in binary before because you couldn’t open up the document and see what’s inside of it.

It’s not only Microsoft. I’m seeing competitors trying to embrace our vision. Adobe Acrobat 7 shipped this February with some support for XML. I’m very happy that they’re actually following our lead. I believe that Open Office is trying to do the same thing.

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