Tuesday, June 24, 2008


XML Fever

I've co-authored a paper with my School of Information colleague Erik Wilde titled "XML Fever" that has just come out in the July 2008 "Communications of the ACM."


Despite the somewhat silly title, which we modeled after a paper by Alex Bell called "Death by UML Fever" in ACM Queue a few years ago, "XML Fever" is a serious paper that analyzes misconceptions and problems with XML.

For example, anyone who's ever heard me rant about why XML isn't self-describing won't be surprised that one of the XML fevers is "Self-description delusion." This causes its victims to assume that the semantics of an XML document are self-evident, openly available just by looking at it and understanding the names. Frequently, this strain of XML fever causes great discomfort when the victims learn that XML does not deal with semantics, and that common understanding has to be established through other mechanisms.

The abstract says:

The Extensible Markup Language (XML), which just celebrated its 10th birthday, is one of the big success stories of the Web. Apart from basic Web technologies (URIs, HTTP, and HTML) and the advanced scripting driving the Web 2.0 wave, XML is by far the most successful and ubiquitous Web technology. With great power, however, comes great responsibility, so while XML's success is well earned as the first truly universal standard for structured data, it must now deal with numerous problems that have grown up around it. These are not entirely the fault of XML itself, but instead can be attributed to exaggerated claims and ideas of what XML is and what it can do.

The introductory paragraph:

This article is about the lessons gleaned from learning XML, from teaching XML, from dealing with overly optimistic assumptions about XML's powers, and from helping XML users in the real world recover from these misconceptions. We frame our observations and the root of the problems along with possible cures in terms of different categories and strains of XML fever. We didn't invent this term, but it embodies many interesting metaphors for understanding the use and abuse of XML, including disease symptoms, infection methods, immunization and preventive measures, and various remedies for treating those suffering from different strains.

The last two paragraphs:

When someone first learns about it, XML may seem like the hammer in the cliché about everything looking like a nail. Those of us who teach XML, write about it, or help others become effective users of it, however, can encourage a more nuanced view of XML tools and technologies that portrays them as a set of hammers of different sizes, with a variety of grips, heads, and claws. We need to point out that not everyone needs a complete set of hammers, but information architects should know how to select the appropriate hammer for the kind of hammering they need to do. And we should always remember that pounding nails is only one of the tasks involved in design and construction.

XML has succeeded beyond the wildest expectations as a convenient format for encoding information in an open and easily computable fashion. But it is just a format, and the difficult work of analysis and modeling information has not and will never go away.

-Bob Glushko

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