XML-DEV (was Re: Open Standards Processes) [longish]
Since XML-DEV is a bit over a year old and because of though-provoking and constructive discussion at present and because of the success of SAX, here are some ramblings. A year is a long time and many XML-DEV members were not subscribed when we started, so my rosy-coloured recollections are given. [A lot of the specifics can be generalised to the issues we are addressing now.] We all owe a great deal to Henry Rzepa. [BTW Henry *does* read your mail, and does unsubscribe people, etc. He is just very busy. While I can get a thrill out of writing stuff like this, Henry is getting less of a thrill trying to sort out actually what mail address someone thinks they are subscribed to; why sending 'unsubscribe' to xml-dev doesn't work, etc.] Henry and I are molecular scientists - chemist and crystallographer respectively. He had the vision - perhaps about 7-10 years ago - of the *power of the electronic medium to communicate molecular ideas*. [The phrase is mine - he may disagree :-)]. We formed a symbiotic relationship - we undertake parts of an activity which are complementary. The fundamental aspect of most of what we do is to use the power of the information revolution to create a new way of communicating molecular science. XML-DEV is part of that. Molecular science (like many other disciplines that XML-DEVers will be familiar with) is well-established, with a large information industry and a fragmented approach. We have few formal standards for the communication of chemistry and syntactic mismatch is extremely common. Moreover the semantics of chemistry are very wide - Linus Pauling was probably the last person ever to be able to formulate them. Henry pioneered the use of the WWW for chemistry many ways - development of interactive tools for molecular and spectral display - and has run 3 major e-conferences. Some years ago he had the idea of using MIME to convey chemical information. The two of us spent $10 in a Greenford pub and - with Ben Whittaker - drafted a submission to the IETF for chemical/x-*. This was immediately successful in that the molecular community adopted this almost overnight (ca. 2 months). This - I think - is the ideal that some of us are searching for in current discussions - can we develop something for $10 in an open process that does exactly what the community wants. I use the word 'meme' (from Richard Dawkins - the Selfish Gene) to describe this; it's a self-reproducing idea. Since the WWW is a marvellous incubator for memes, they are very attractive to develop and I believe XML-DEV has and will continue to create them. A meme must have the properties: - it must be rapidly (i.e. minutes) obvious what its point is. - a sufficient percentage of the population must be infectable - the energy required to transmit it must be low compared with its value. A good idea of a meme on the WWW is the 'Home Page'. No committee decided that there should be home pages - but they are self-evidently valuable to a large percentage of us. FAQs are another. I have been searching for many years for the means to convey my ideas (in molecular software). It became clear that with SGML(sic) and the WWW these had arrived and I developed costwish to this end (i.e. a general SGML tool with the specific intention of promoting Chemical Markup Language). But it was very clear that *ML ideas were not going to spread rapidly without portable software, and SGML was not an effective meme (expensive and cumbersome). So when XML arrived I know that the 'right solution' was there - it was a question of how to make sure it got to a stage where the molecular community saw the value and the need to adopt it. I did not expect the molecular community to be in the vanguard of those developing XML solutions and on the whole this is true. The exceptions come from those areas which are already involved with largescale *document* management such as (a few) publishers, patents and regulatory. A key problem in many sciences is the separation of 'documents' from 'data'. The data industry is not used to using *ML approaches, while the document industry usually regards 'data' as no different from any other pixel-based rendering (i.e. semantic content is discarded). XML offers the enormous excitement of creating unified documents and data - and could revolutionise the process of scientific publishing if the communities have the courage. [My own - crystallography - has; it has developed e-publications in which documents and data are combined, but this is very rare.] So the motivation for XML-DEV was to help the generic XML effort succeed. This was by no means certain when XML started. If XML were to have any meme-like qualities it would simple believable software, besides a convincing spec. In my experience it is far easier to write specs than to implement them and I have seen many which have never been effectively implemented. I didn't want this to happen with XML and so H and I offered this list as a means of helping the communal software development process. We have, of course, been very gratified by the large number of people who have announced freely or easily available software here. There are times when the software has had an important effect in highlighting aspects of the spec - for example the difficulty of implementing some of the original PE syntax. Another concern that we had was the likelihood of incompatible implementations. This could have been through misinterpretation of the spec or simply the lack of suitable test apparatus. [BTW I hope that JUMBO2 can act as a simple test apparatus as it can run any SAX-compliant parser]. I have always suggested that XML-DEV should take a lead in aiming for re-usability, compatibility, etc. I am delighted, of course, with DavidM's achievement with SAX - certainly much larger that it seen ed at the start. It is clear that XML is now a believable approach, and it's also clear that - possibly for the first time - difficult aspects of semantics, namespaces, etc. are having to be addressed in public. If XML-DEV can help in this - splendid. If some of these require different organisations, fine. I am now much less concerned than I was a year ago about XML being all talk and no implementation, but I think we always have to remember implementation in most of what we post. Seemingly obvious things can be very difficult to implement - PEs, namespaces have shown that. I suspect that the parser-application relationship will still need a lot of work. Finally. Henry and I heard TimBL talk at WWW1 (CERN) and the formation of (what is now) the W3C was first floated there. It seemed very idealistic, free, new-frontier-like, with talk of 'an electronic bill of rights', etc. Remember at that stage that very little commercial had hit the WWW - most pages were from scientists, a few orgs and IT coms. We didn't know what the W3C would look like. Things then went quiet for some while until we have the W3C as we know it. I sympathise with all the views expressed. I'm an idealist, and when it has been possible to create a $10 meme it's marvellous. Henry and I are planning a follow-up. I've had the same experience with the Globewide Network Academy - a group of enthusiast volunteers (many are graduate students) who see the power of the electronic age with a clarity and confident some of us miss. They have done extraordinary things - just with a few server-side resources and boundless energy. However, these successes are rare and most real-world creations require time, money and a lot of paid dedication. Compared to most 'standards' processes I have found the W3C process for XML and related matters extremely impressive and refreshing. OK, I am partially involved as an XML-SIG member but I understand the frustration of those who do not know what is being discussed. But I do value the way that the XML-SIG has chosen people for their expertise rather than their formal institutional standing [I was unemployed]. I also think that - in XML - there has been relatively little so far that has been a major shock when published in draft. My understanding is that drafts are available internally 1 month before being made publicly available, though obviously discussions can be confidential for somewhat longer. IMO the speed and rigour of the process is very impressive and if this is offset against delay in pre-publication I think it's worth it. If as an individual you want to become involved in shaping the W3C discussions, it probably helps if you have shown expertise publicly, and created tools of benefit to the community. FWIW Henry and I spent a lot of time presenting our case on the MIME discussion list, without formal success :-). I appreciate the problem that XML-writers find themselves in (I may, or may not, be writing an XML book). It's actually a commentary on the outdated nature of the paper-publication process that people have to plan for publication before they know what they are writing about (in detail). E-publication need not suffer from the same constraints - thus (if you regard it as an e-publication) the JUMBO2 CDROM will have the latest, final version of SAX 'hot off the press'. P. Peter Murray-Rust, Director Virtual School of Molecular Sciences, domestic net connection VSMS http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/vsms, Virtual Hyperglossary http://www.venus.co.uk/vhg xml-dev: A list for W3C XML Developers. To post, mailto:xml-dev@i... Archived as: http://www.lists.ic.ac.uk/hypermail/xml-dev/ To (un)subscribe, mailto:majordomo@i... the following message; (un)subscribe xml-dev To subscribe to the digests, mailto:majordomo@i... the following message; subscribe xml-dev-digest List coordinator, Henry Rzepa (mailto:rzepa@i...)
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