Happy 10th Birthday, XML

The Extensible Markup Language, or XML—a way of structuring data inside semantic tags that allow it to be interpreted consistently across disparate information systems—is the key to many types of business software today, not to mention the entire Web 2.0 revolution. And on Sunday, the critical Web standard turned 10 years old.

The Cambridge-based World Wide Web Consortium, which approved XML 1.0 as a recommended standard on February 10, 1998, is collecting “XML stories” or personal reminiscences from Web luminaries and plans a series of birthday-celebration events throughout 2008, according to a press release issued by the non-profit organization today. Befitting the geekiness of the anniversary, the W3C has also published an online guest book where netizens can leave their thoughts about XML.

“There is essentially no computer in the world, desk-top, hand-held, or back-room, that doesn’t process XML sometimes,” Tim Bray, director of web technologies at Sun Microsystems and a major contributor to (and co-editor of) the XML 1.0 standard, said in the W3C’s release. “This is a good thing, because it shows that information can be packaged and transmitted and used in a way that’s independent of the kinds of computer and software that are involved. XML won’t be the last neutral information-wrapping system; but as the first, it’s done very well.”

Bray has already published his own XML recollections, and Uche Ogbuji, principal consultant for Fourthought Inc., has published a paper on IBM’s DeveloperWorks website calling the last 10 years “the XML Decade.” Ogbuji tells an interesting story about the COBOL programming language, a business-oriented language that had nearly gone extinct until the late 1990s. That was when hundreds of companies still using decades-old legacy COBOL software realized that the Y2K problem could sink their systems—resulting in a huge new demand for COBOL programmers who could write around the problem.

Ogbuji calls the crisis “an extraordinary waste in resources spent agonizing over past assets rather than productively developing new ones”—the main lesson being that “it is extremely valuable to develop data so that it outlives the applications that presently operate on it. XML, used properly can help prevent such crises in productivity as the artificial COBOL boom of the 1990s, and even better, it can be a building block rather than a stumbling block for productivity by pointing the way to new applications in the constant quest for competitiveness.”

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • Porren

    Ogbuji’s unfortunate statement reflects an immature perspective on software development with which I disagree strongly. Code, regardless of the language it was written in, that is in production running a business constitutes value – on your balance sheet, assets are assets and the longer you can use them the more value it brings. Instead of tossing this value out with every latest trend in IT, mature approaches seek to extract knowledge from existing systems and reuse and modernise them, ideally incrementally, whenever possible. You cannot approach enterprise systems with the same consumerist mentality as you would look at the latest mobile devices you put in your pocket. In short, I say boo and drivel to Ogbuji’s statement that extracting value from assets is an “extraordinary waste”.

  • Ba-Nanneh

    Wade Roush made a serious error quoting Ogbuji – He did not in fact state this in his article. I agree it is a dumb thing to say, but Ogbuji didn’t say it himself. He merely said that other people had said that… Why are we quoting two-year old articles on the IBM website anyway…? Boo for Wade Roush!

  • @Porren

    I completely agree with you that “Instead of tossing this value out with every latest trend in IT, mature approaches seek to extract knowledge from existing systems and reuse and modernise them” and that code is indeed an asset, but that is exactly why I agree with this quote.

    I think the argument here is that the beauty of XML is indeed the value it can bring over time. In the systems of today, unlike Cobol, XML is highly adaptable which gives it a highly increased longevity.

    What the quote argues is that XML will help code have a significantly longer shelf-life. So yeah, we’re coming up on COBOL’s big 50th… it had a great life, but I definitely see XML being a more influential language in the long run.