Last week in Philadelphia, I had the honor of delivering the opening keynote address at XML 2003. On the morning of the talk, I watched the cubicles light up in the bank across the street from my hotel. XML is a disruptive technology that is almost certainly replumbing the IT infrastructure of that bank. But to those bankers booting up their PCs and sipping coffee in early morning CRT glow, XML is still probably just plumbing — if that.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. XML came from a community of people who were — and are — inspired by a dream of universal access to information. Tim Bray, co-editor of the XML 1.0 specification, calls them “publishing-technology geeks” — in contrast to the “database divas,” who arrived more recently on the scene. For the original crowd, some of whom I met for the first time (putting names not only to faces but to W3C specs), XML had always been about documents. The idea was that by enabling documents to describe themselves, flow through networks, dissolve into fragments, and reassemble in new ways, the processes mediated by those documents — human memory, thought, and communication — could improve.
At a previous XML conference in 2001, the agenda had been all about plumbing. On a panel whose topic was “The Importance of XML,” I found myself utterly at a loss for words. Of course I agreed with all the reasons the panel thought XML was important: for Web services, for interprocess communication, and for business process automation. But I also thought XML was important for quite different reasons: for end-user applications, for routine communication, and for personal productivity. And I thought it was a really bad idea to separate those two ways of using XML.
In a picture taken that day, my body language tells the story. I was slouched at the end of the table, eyes downcast, looking glum. I had scoured the conference sessions and booths for signs that XML was touching people’s everyday lives — the people for whom the much-discussed Web services stack was, after all, being invented — but had found no such signs.
XML 2003 was a much happier experience. Seven weeks after shipping InfoPath, Microsoft’s Jean Paoli was onstage showing how officers of the North Carolina Highway Patrol are using XML documents to report incidents. And Adobe, which had earlier this year revealed the existence of latent XML capabilities in the free Acrobat 6 reader, demonstrated the beta version of a form designer that can turn a piece of digital paper into an XML-aware form.
“The relational database is designed to serve up rows and columns,” said BEA’s Adam Bosworth in his keynote talk. “But our model of the world is documents. It’s, ‘Tell me everything I want to know about this person or this clinical trial.’ And those things are not flat, they’re complex. Now we have the way to get not only the hospital records and prescriptions but also the doctor’s write-ups.”
The doctors and bankers will get that, just as the highway patrolmen already do. XML documents, flowing through XML plumbing, can now deliver very real and tangible benefits. For the publishing geeks who started it all, it’s a moment to savor.