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SGML '95: highlights of the conference

Linda Burman
L. A. Burman Associates

Not very long ago, SGML was considered the province of "geeks." The attendance figures at last December's SGML '95 demonstrated a major shift in that perception. More than 900 attendees -- business people, mainstream computer users and SGML experts -- exceeded all expectations for attendance figures at a "niche" technical conference. These numbers indicate that SGML has finally moved into the mainstream, out of a visionary phase and into an operational phase, as Eric Severson of Interleaf noted in his keynote address to SGML newcomers.

Conference overview and key themes

At SGML '94, everyone (including the conference organizers) was pleasantly surprised by the attendance figures. "Old timers" were incredulous that an SGML technical conference had attracted over 700 people. By December 1995, it was clear to those in the industry that the audience at SGML '95 would exceed that number. The tone of the conference was one of excitement because so many new faces attended -- mainstream users who came not because they had been forced by an industry mandate but because they had heard of the many benefits of SGML and were truly interested in what SGML could do for them. Perhaps Michael Sperberg-McQueen summed it up best: "The SGML conferences used to be attended by a small, inbred, strictly observant religious community. Now there is a lot of intermarriage."

In his opening address, Yuri Rubinsky pointed out that the conference represented "the largest body of SGML expertise ever assembled in one place -- at least on this planet." Well-known names in the SGML world and promising newcomers shared the podium in what organizers termed a "total immersion conference." SGML '95 offered formal talks, poster sessions, evening presentations and discussion sessions, and a vendor showcase of the latest technology. To provide guidance, the formal talks were divided into tracks for newcomers, users, and experts although conference goers were encouraged to attend talks based on their level of interest rather than their level of expertise.

The influence of the World Wide Web and HTML

Much of the enthusiasm for SGML was attributable to the World Wide Web. As Maureen F. Prettyman of the U.S. National Library of Medicine noted, "Before, people came and listened, but they weren't willing to expend the effort required. Word processing and OCR were good enough. Now people can see the benefits of SGML because of the explosion of HTML -- it's here; they can touch it; now they understand."

There was pretty much unanimous agreement among attendees that once someone learns HTML, SGML loses its ability to terrorize. As one user pointed out, "People are discovering the limitations of HTML and thus are moving to SGML because they aren't afraid any more." Moreover, even if HTML is viewed as a simple delivery format, no one can ignore the huge boost the WWW has given the SGML community in terms of additional financial resources and new creativity.

The value of SGML for business

The increased attendance at SGML '95 can also be attributed to the value of SGML for businesses. It's been shown to work. You no longer have to ask if it will solve the problem. It's been demonstrated many times. Many people made similar comments and noted that not only were the conference and exposition bigger than ever, but also much more attention was being paid to computer users outside the SGML context. Real business applications are being stressed, showing that this is becoming a maturing market.

In an address to newcomers, Eric Severson examined the business value of SGML. He noted industry trends toward integrating SGML into ongoing initiatives and specified ways in which SGML and structured documents can help improve business processes, lower production costs, expand market share, and increase profitability and cash flow. Several sessions were devoted to case studies of SGML at work in a variety of information-intensive environments, which further attests to its value as a tool for businesses.

John Vail, senior product manager for Microsoft Word confirmed the value of SGML for business applications. He described a recent training seminar in which 6000 VARs and integrators attended three days of training on solutions based on Microsoft Author for Word. Vail noted, "There is nothing more gratifying than seeing people who are actually using the product to get their work done."

Presentation highlights

In one of the most significant presentations at the conference, particularly for the SGML experts, the arrival of DSSSL (and Core DSSSL) was announced. DSSSL, the Document Style Semantics and Specification Language (ISO/IEC 10179), is what most of the SGML community has been waiting for years as the solution for transferring style and format data. Without it there has been no widely accepted way to realize the promise of SGML -- true re-usability of information to multiple output media including print. The belief is that DSSSL is a clean, consecutive map that SGML makes possible. Now the challenge is to see how rapidly vendors and corporations will implement products and solutions based on this new standard.

In another very interesting and highly popular session, Marcy Thompson of Passage Systems presented "A Tables Manifesto." She pointed out that the CALS table model is used most often because it is the only one supported by most of the SGML tools. The SGML tools support it because vendors believe that the CALS tables model is the one that most customers use. In other words, little evaluation is done to determine whether or not it is the right model for a particular application. Marcy exhorted the industry to develop new industry-wide models and to tell customers that the CALS tables model is good for some applications but is not well suited "for geometric markup in many industries such as metallurgy, certain branches of history, and marketing SGML conferences."

Dr. Charles Goldfarb presented the eagerly awaited news of the HyTime Corrigendum detailing approved changes to the HyTime Standard (ISO/IEC 10744). These changes align DSSSL and HyTime and also specify "general facilities" on which the HyTime architecture depends. These facilities are important because they can be used by documents and systems that do not necessarily support the HyTime architecture. They include architectural forms, entity management that supports Formal System Identifiers with URLs, multibyte character sets and archives, and a model of information recognized by an SGML parser defined with HyTime's property set definition mechanism. It is expected that these changes could have a profound affect on the use of SGML as well.

In a more humorous vein, Goldfarb also unveiled his new unicorn rating scheme for SGML applications in a jazzy presentation replete with Java applets.

Michael Sperberg-McQueen's annual wrap-up has become an institution that is a "must catch" of the SGML conferences. His pithy, sometimes satirical descriptions like "Use HTML for distributing killed, cooked, and frozen data" poke fun at all, but his remarks also provide some of the most serious commentary on the conference and the industry in general.

Conference exhibits

This year the exhibits program outgrew the hotel exhibit space and moved to the "big time" of the Hynes Auditorium. Two new products attracted great attention on the show floor -- Inforium's LivePage WebMaster and Synex's ViewPort, a developer's toolkit.

Inforium's LivePage Webmaster builds on the ability of LivePage, a developer's toolkit that makes it possible to build new documents on the fly based on SQL queries. Webmaster is made up of three components. Webmaster Builder takes an existing Web site, individual HTML files or even text files, converts/fixes any files that are not already HTML 2.0 compliant, and builds a basic structure inside the LivePage repository structure. Changing or fixing the structure can then be done by drag-and-drop. The LivePage Updater then makes it possible to extract particular pages from the database for editing with the user's HTML editor of choice. Once content is complete, WebMaster Publisher takes the database and publishes it as an updated version of the original site to any designated Web server. The Inforium booth was swamped throughout the exhibition even though the show floor lacked a live link to the Internet to show the solution in action.

Synex ViewPort is a cross-platform SGML HyTime browser engine/toolkit -- the basis of SoftQuad's Panorama -- that makes it possible to add SGML browsing to any application. With the interest in Intranet implementation heating up, SGML is becoming a more viable Web publishing solution. Thus, the market for SGML browsing has increased substantially.

SGML '95 poster sessions

The highly acclaimed conference poster sessions also moved to Hynes Auditorium this year. The visually oriented format of a graphic and textual presentation prepared on large sheets of paper and posted on a wall offers viewers a comprehensible message whether or not the author is immediately available to elaborate. In addition, the poster format enables authors to reach a much larger audience than would be possible during a single scheduled presentation.

Technical posters have dominated this part of the conference in previous years, but business-oriented posters and vendor posters were very much in evidence this year, affirming the growing interest in and value of SGML. Conference attendees consistently report that the poster sessions are among the most valuable sources of information at the SGML conferences.

In memoriam: Yuri Rubinsky

Yuri Rubinsky, president and co-founder of SoftQuad, Inc. and chair of the SGML conferences since 1988, died suddenly on January 21, 1996. Yuri's opening keynote address had become an institution of the SGML conferences. Every year, he and conference co-chair, Tommie Usdin, delivered the SGML Year in Review, a compendium of all of the SGML activities that had taken place throughout the world over the previous year. This year Yuri announced that he was retiring the Year in Review because there were just too many activities to be described in the time allotted, regardless of how fast the presenters attempted to speak. Instead, he titled his opening keynote "Where are we? How did we get here?"

As always, Yuri was thoughtful and insightful -- and entertaining. He commented that "despite the crowd at this event and the somewhat overwhelming presence of the world's largest SGML application, the World Wide Web, SGML doesn't feel . . . like Windows 95." He said he was finally convinced that the greater world is not going to use SGML for everything. Even though SGML has "infiltrated such an impressive list of higher echelons" and is in software sold by Microsoft and WordPerfect, it is not part of all of the software that those and other companies sell because using SGML for everything requires huge steps that many companies aren't willing to take. However, SGML has become a real tool, no longer the province of visionaries and engineers. It has been shown to work and indeed its HTML application has shown that it can succeed far beyond what anyone might have imagined SGML could do.Yuri concluded by saying that "SGML is now a rich part of the toolset we use to do our work."

It seems impossible that Yuri will not be at SGML '96. Charming, warm, funny, tireless in checking every detail of the conference, encouraging anyone who is taking even small steps along the road to an SGML implementation, always taking time to comment on a new idea or respond to a request for information or advice, Yuri Rubinsky will be sorely missed.

The world of SGML will go on -- partly because Yuri worked so hard to build its foundation. But it will never be quite the same.

What's next for SGML?

Attendance figures for this conference attest to the pervasiveness of SGML and its value for transparent document interchange, ensuring that data will outlive hardware and software, and reusability. But there is still tremendous growth to come as new, easier-to-use and better integrated tools come on the market and as the knowledge that has been acquired through the early and sometimes painful growth stages of SGML implementations becomes available. Stay tuned!

About the author

Linda Burman is President of L.A. Burman Associates, a consulting firm leveraging the growth in electronic publishing. The company provides strategic market planning, business development, and various tactical marketing activities.

Linda Burman
L. A. Burman Associates
23 Hambly Avenue
Toronto, ON. M4E 2R5
(416) 699-7198 (voice)
(416) 699-1178 (fax)

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last updated: 5/1/96