2003 InfoWorld Innovator: Jean Paoli

The patience of Microsoft's XML evangelist pays off as Office 2003 brings rich XML support to the desktop

For more than 15 years, Jean Paoli has dreamed of empowering people to read, write, search, and analyze structured documents. He may be "only one of the 11 co-creators of the XML standard," but, as the architect of Microsoft Office 2003's deep and rich support for XML, he's the one who is taking XML to the desktop.

The journey began at the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (aka INRIA). Paoli's mentor, Gilles Kahn, had inspired a series of projects to create syntax-aware editors for programming languages. A few years later, Paoli found himself working with the SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) community, transposing ideas from software research into tools for writing SGML documents. But it was a niche market. Then in 1996, Adam Bosworth hired him to help spread the XML religion within Microsoft.

"Between a dream and the mass market, there is a huge gap, especially when the technology is complex like XML," Paoli says. Working with teams geared up to build, test, and distribute mass-market software, he began to bridge that gap.

The desktop was the ultimate goal, so Paoli had to spend years evangelizing XML to the server groups, a calculated strategic maneuver. Had BizTalk and then SQL Server not embraced XML, and had Web services never materialized, there would be no business case for XML support in Office 2003.

Bosworth reportedly said, "I never met anybody as patient as Jean." After all, Paoli worked within Microsoft for seven years to make his document dream happen.

Along the way, Paoli had glimpses of how XML could rewrite the rules. He is particularly proud of CDF (Channel Definition Format), an RSS-like syndication format that debuted in Internet Explorer not long after the ink was dry on the XML specification.

"It was the first time we showed how to describe data and move it between platforms," Paoli says. The idea spread widely inside the company, and suddenly Microsoft names and e-mail addresses began appearing on XML specifications. "XSL, Schema, Namespaces -- all this activity was huge in 1997 because the Microsoft developers were giving us ideas."

It's a good thing that Paoli is a patient man, though, because widespread end-user adoption of XML is by no means a certain thing. Why has the going been so slow? "People want immediate gratification," he says.

Adoption flows from the bottom up. The humblest examples are the ones that resonate. Consider the mundane expense form: If the XML version leads to quick reimbursement, that's a real incentive to use it. Then the sky's the limit.

"I really believe that when people start to create documents with semantic or descriptive tags, we will be building a treasure for humanity," Paoli says. "I am ready to wait for that."

(For profiles on the other nine 2003 InfoWorld Innovators, go to Honoring the Innovators.)