XML is ten years old this year, which by any measure should be treated as a not insignificant milestone. When I started covering the technology as a writer back in late 1997, each article or book that I wrote had to indicate that this was the eXtensible Markup Language (the X was sexier than E, apparently) and that the language in turn was something that could be used to describe documents and possibly other things, as experimentation with the emerging XML parsers began to illustrate.
Edd Dumbill was the key driving force in getting XML.com off the ground for O’Reilly, with the site seen as being the entre into a radical new technology that would likely change the way we make web pages and do a few other things, but the decision to set up such a website was also something of a risk - there were other technologies that were more exciting, and for every person who understood the potential of the language, there were dozens, make that hundreds of otherwise technically competent people who saw XML as being a flash in the pan.
Over the years, this perception has changed dramatically. Now XML is pervasive in the infrastructure of organizations, and if it hasn’t quite made as huge a splash in the browser space as some of us would have predicted, it has nonetheless caused a major shift in the way that data and documents are rendered and separated, information searched, applications written, and content otherwise managed.
Of course, what was bleeding edge ten years ago is fairly old hat nowadays. A decade ago, I had one preschooler. Today, I have two kids in high school and grade school. There’s more padding around the middle and more gray in the beard. The arguments I hear today are variations upon arguments that have been circulating for the last ten years (last thirty plus if you go back to the earliest SGML days) and XML has consequently become mainstream, has gone through its hype phase and its trough phase and has no settled into a steady state that, while still generating a fair amount of interest, is no longer the daring new technology. XML has, to put it bluntly, arrived.
When I took over the site from Kendall Clark (Edd’s able assistant until 2004, and manager of the site itself since then) back in February, I also came in at a time when people throughout O’Reilly were also realizing that it was time for the O’Reilly Networks to reinvent themselves. O’Reilly’s mission has long been simple in theory and remarkably complex in execution - stand on the shoulders of giants to better determine what was coming through the fog of the future and be there to promote it, to explain it, and even to make it happen if necessary.
The O’Reilly Networks in particular have been the crows nest of this particular exploration vessel, the place on high from which the editors and writers would be able to call out “Land Ho!”, to first see those trends coming into view. It’s a somewhat intoxicating place to be, but it’s also a place where its possible to become complacent, lazing in the warm afternoon sun while others work below. I think the realization has been made throughout the organization, but perhaps especially from the Networks, that it is time to rebuild and reorganize as the world itself has changed.
To that end, XML.com is going to be changing to better reflect what’s happening with XML itself and with the users of the technology. One of those changes is a significant broadening of the mandate that the writers and editors will be focusing on.
Consider this: a programmer writing financial web services for a foreign exchange system will likely be using XML in some form, as will a technical writer putting together documentation about the latest products, a graphic designer building scalable graphics to be incorporated into that documentation, the accountant preparing the company’s SEC filing, the web developers putting the last touches on a content driven system from an XML database written by a Java developer dealing with the minutae of DOM operations. The technology is pervasive, is increasingly hidden beneath layers of infrastructure, and in many cases is generated and consumed mechanistically without any human intervention.
We can talk, and will continue to talk, on schemas and transforms and DOM and parsing and processing, but the scope has increased so dramatically that these technical issues become increasingly arcane to the users of this technology. Increasingly, the challenge is JUST talking about XML - there’s always an AND in there (or perhaps an &) - XML and Web Services, XML and Content Management, XML and Computer Graphics, XML and …
This means that in many ways the mandate moving forward is not to promote XML so much as to look at what that XML is now making possible as the next generation of technologies. What should the scope of such a site be? Here’s just a short list:
Semantic Web Lite, Classifications and Data Modeling
Data structures are becoming more complex as the tools become more capable, and the need to organize, classify and model those structures is only going to increase. Classification is the next wave of web design - the use of classifications as the foundation for information organization and, more importantly, information navigation. Given the multidimensional facets of such classifications and modeling, XML is easily one of the principle tools that we’ll be using to better shape the virtual world (keeping in mind that within the virtual world, the map in all too many cases IS the territory).
This concept is also something that is being taken to heart at O`Reilly, as the new web sites will be built with much more of a focus on tagging and categorizational navigation, such that any given article will in fact be referenceable from a free set of tags that will let you navigate to find all the articles on XQuery, then from there to articles on Java XML interfaces and off to Java based systems, then perhaps from there to servlet issues. Indeed, one way of thinking about the changes involved is that XML.com will become increasingly a cloud of related topics rather than a signal discrete site, though the exact mechanics for that are still be worked out.
Data in Motion
Social networking relies upon two very distinct concepts - that human relationships can be represented via network links in much the same manner that systems can be networked, and that data must travel over those links. The data moving across that infrastructure is only peripherally related to the data in relational databases … instead, it’s serialized content, either in the form of XML or its near-relative JSON. For too long, I think there’s been general sniping between the two camps, despite the fact that both represent a profound shift in thinking away from tightly coupled, highly efficient binary interfaces using proprietary interfaces and towards loosely coupled, inefficient text interfaces using open standards.
The mandate upon authors and editors going forward will be to extend beyond the requirement for having XML in the title, so its likely that you`ll be seeing more articles on things as varied as Drupal, state transitions, RESTful architectures, Rich Internet Applications, Social Networking, Business Reporting systems and so forth. I like to think of it as the mandate under consideration is data at rest and data in motion … (the dynamics of data? Hmmmm….)
Who, What, When, Where, How and Why?
Much of journalism is focused on the first four of the “great questions” - who, what, when and where, typically with very little thought given to deep analysis (the “why” part) or underlying mechanics (the “how” part). O’Reilly readers have long been far more interested in understanding those mechanics, as befits the very technically sophisticated nature of its audience, and as such its not surprising that the publisher has become well known for its ability to explain and explore technical content.
However, one of the aspects of XML that I’ve often found most fascinating is its tendency to push you up to the biggest big picture views. While there are quite a number of technically focused XML developers, people who work with this technology on a regular basis have a surprisingly high likelihood of migrating into architecture positions in part because XML does end up touching so many aspects of contemporary systems. As such, the question of why - why use this technology over that one, why use this architecture instead of that one, why work with these companies instead of those, seems especially pertinent to this audience as well.
One of the changes that’s underway is a shift of focus towards analysis rather than just tutorials or reportage, so that you can understand better the factors that underly the new technologies and as such be able to make better informed decisions about the technology that you’re working with this. Part of this as well will be a move towards increasing interviews with key decision makers, program developers, architects and thought leaders throughout both IT and sectors that are touched on by IT.
Transcending the Article
Pity the poor journalist. News content today is generated as much by blogs as by the professionals, often with stories that are more engaging, informative, and focused because they are written by people who are passionate about their interests. One of the changes that is underway at O’Reilly is the realization of this, that there are many people out there who are both skilled at writing and have stories to tell, and one way of making sure that story gets out is to approach those people who are the thought leaders increasingly to write their own thoughts, rather than relying exclusively upon editorial driven content.
The latter won’t disappear completely - there are editorial calendars and schedules that drive content, and the role of the editor will still be to identify those stories that need to be told and to make that happen - but at the same time, there is a sea change of recognition that the best way to provide good stories is to find passionate people and let them write about what interests them.
A second change that O’Reilly is making is the increased presence of video and podcast content, both as parts of articles and as separate entities in their own right. We’ll be making available more presentational content - slide-shows and videos of presentations at conferences (O’Reilly and otherwise), as well as specific productions that are perhaps more in line with radio and television stations than with what O’Reilly has traditionally been known for.
There’s one point here, though, that has frequently been missed elsewhere. It’s not the intent of XML.com certainly (and much of O’Reilly in general) to be a media powerhouse. Don’t expect O’Reilly TV to surface on your cable box anytime soon. However, integrated media production of all sorts is a contemporary reality in 2008; from interviews and conference coverage to how-to videos, tutorials, podcast productions, and what’s new segments, video, audio, slide-decks and other forms of new media will continue to become more of a presence on O’Reilly in the coming year.
Beyond the Code
It can be argued that the Internet revolution is only one facet of a broader technological transformation that is being driven both by Fibonacci sequence like growth (every innovation is the sum of recent previous innovations) and by an increasing need to solve very real problems beyond those of the boardroom. The recent dramatic rise in demand for everything from oil to food to water point to the need to think beyond existing solutions, while challenges that came from poor foresight are requiring more sophisticated approaches now than they would have before.
Software is intrinsically political, as it encodes within the machines and data models around us the needs, desires, and concerns of those who created or commissioned that software. As such software has increasingly become distributed, asynchronous and global, this has also made those of us who work with software more aware of the global dimensions of what we do - and all of the local problems that ultimately may have localized solutions (though not necessarily in the same locale).
Our mandate has consequently extended to cover those places touched by such data in motion - energy systems, medical technologies, business processes, emergency and geospatial services and so forth; indeed, one of the key aspects of the redefinition of xml.com is that its focus is ultimately on services, resources, and the places where they intersect, a meme that’s moving through all of O’Reilly. This means in the end that while the letters XML may not necessarily appear in the articles, features and blogs here, what we’re moving towards is the world that comes about now that those letters have firmly merged with the underlying infrastructure of the web.
The next ten years should be interesting.
Kurt Cagle is the Managing Editor of XML.com.