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Issue 23 - 28 November 1997
News and opinion about the use of Web and Intranet technologies to support distributed computing and information delivery. Edited by Peter Judge and Christopher Ogg. See back issues and the extended WOT information service at <http://www.wot.co.uk>
This issue's stories
I spent a very useful day at Technology Appraisals' XML conference in London, chaired by Tim Bray. TA is our sponsor, just so I have reminded you.
The big thing I got from the day was a realisation of just how much excitement there is behind XML, and how much of a difference the approach has from the conventions that have evolved in the HTML Web.
Pam Gennusa of Database Publishing Systems listed a mass of XML products, and then in amongst very useful papers from Tim Bray and others the worldview of XML became clear(er) to me.
As you probably know, XML is a simplified workable subset of the massively complex SGML markup language. (We've also heard it described, tongue in cheek, as a superset of a subset.) Where SGML is a 'square' thing for document handlers, XML is a 'hip' thing for Web monkeys. The XML people, most of whom are old SGML hands, are blinking to discover that third year computer science students are writing XML products - SGML never had that kind of street cred. Pam Gennusa's product listing was as rich and varied as the SGML listings that used to circulate several years after that movement started.
Code properly, dummy!
But those kind of comparisons do not touch the real difference that XML is supposed to make to the Web. Never mind comparisons with SGML, how does it relate to HTML? And at the TA conference, I heard it spelt out in a way I haven't heard before - THE KEY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN XML AND HTML IS THAT XML WILL BE WRITTEN PROPERLY.
HTML is too forgiving of errors. In order to make the Web 'open' in one sense, Netscape made sure that its browsers would read even broken HTML code. This started out as just a way to forgive writers who forgot to close their tags, but evolved into a scheme whereby the vendors could include whatever they damn well pleased.
The two results of this were:
- the 'race to the bottom', where the two suppliers fight over features endlessly, a struggle from which they derive less and less profit.
- the bloating of the browsers, which have to include masses of code to catch the errors and inconsistencies out there and somehow display something useful to the user. (we were told that 50% of the code in IE is for error handling).
The XML committee apparently had a joint memo, strongly worded, from both Microsoft and Netscape, demanding that they make XML handle errors strictly - that is XML processors should reject bad XML.
This request came from the companies' engineering departments. If they can keep to their resolve (which may well be against the will of the marketing people), then XML browsers will simply give error messages when given incomplete or incorrect XML code. This will happen at development time - since developers use the browsers to test the code. XML browsers will be able to remain small, and the vendors won't be chasing each other to destruction.
Basically, this is an illustration that the tragedy of the commons need not happen in a population of two. Both can agree to support the joint rational line - in a field of more players, one browser might find it a useful 'edge' to handle bad code.
The vendors also have in mind the fact that this scenario is the only thing on which it is possible to base electronic commerce, where invoices etc must be determinate.
Allegedly, XML will become practical next year when supposedly Microsoft moves IE5 over to XML, handling existing HTML (including broken code) as a special case.
The practical upshot is that people building large HTML bases who want to move to XML and use the features it offers, including intelligence in the client, should be making an effort to write correct HTML now. According to some speakers at TA's conference, this means dumping products like PageMill and Front Page (even if it did win awards at Comdex!) and using HoTMetaL Pro (carefully).
It's an intriguing story, and key to the future of XML. 'XML won't happen if it suffers the bitrot that HTML has,' said Tim Bray. 'But if Netscape and Microsoft agree, it will be enough to create the right cultural climate.'
As they say, watch this space. [PJ]
A couple of weeks into its launch, Lotus' eSuite (formerly Kona) seems to have hit the right note, and revived the Java and NC camp's spirits considerably. Admittedly, we have only seen a demo, but beta is due any day now. But the impact of a real Java product that impinges on users would certainly go some way to convince people of the possibilities.
What we have seen looks it might just have avoided the weaknesses of early attempts at Java applications, and of Microsoft's monolithic Office suite. Lotus has lined up an impressive array of partners including AOL, Intel, Sun, Oracle and Netscape - and proposed a user interface specification aimed at 'Webtop' computing.
As we say, beta code won't be available for the public till the end of November, and the product is planned for the third week in January - and this will still be only six of the nine planned applets. However, the sneak preview we saw shows Lotus has done good work in redesigning the user interface, and the launch shows that Lotus and others are ready to put their weight behind it.
The front screen of eSuite gives the user a choice of icons for tasks, rather than program names. Within the programs that are opened, there are very few icons and far fewer toolbars than we are used to. Most users have to hover the mouse and get the explanation for most of the icons they use, and toolbars are confusing, say Lotus insiders.
Previous attempts to produce a Java suite ended up with the worst of both worlds - a product that was an attempt to recreate Microsoft Office in mobile form, and too unwieldy to be practical.
Nine eSuite applets are planned, each less than 500k in size (so delivery over a LAN will be swift), including spreadsheet, email, calendar, and word processor. End users will pay US$49 per user for the suite, and developers can by a DevPack to create Java applications, for $1, 495.
The product has a strong band of allies. AOL, the largest online service provider, will bundle eSuite with its service, and IBM will bundle it with its NetStation NCs. Netscape will offer the products for download as part of its NetCenter hosted intranet service, Sun will ship it for its JavaStation NCs and Oracle's Network Computer subsidiary will deliver it on its own NCs. Intel is working to make it run optimally on its processors, and Novell will deliver it on its servers.
Lotus also announced, with IBM, Oracle and Sun, a set of APIs for software and hardware developers building network computing environments. The "Webtop Specification" - still just a plan - will be a joint production by the four companies. It aims to standardise ways to launch Java desktop applications and transmit information between them. The move looks like an effort to show unity in the ranks, and to offer an equivalent to Microsoft'w Win32 API (but explicitly without launching a new operating system.
Can all this work? Well, enough corporations have said they would like an alternative to Microsoft, and Lotus is certainly a credible supplier. We would expect major users to hang fire to have a good look at eSuite over the coming months. Lotus boss Jeff Papows suggests the Lotus suite business would play Avis to Microsoft's Hertz ("We're number two, so we try harder"). http://www.lotus.com
You occasionally meet help desk people who could use a bit more practice. I recently had trouble accessing a UK bulletin board that grew up into an ISP. I decided to implement its internet service as a backup - and promptly lost access completely for two weeks.
During this time, someone on the help desk offered me a new password, which he could e-mail to my account. When I pointed out that, till I got the password, I had no access to that mailbox, he offered to mail it to a different e-mail address.
Somewhat surprised he would do this without any identity check, I said, "Oh, you obviously believe I am who I say I am. You might as well tell me the password now, on the phone."
I was told: "Oh no, the telephone is not secure, because it isn't encrypted like e-mail."
I laughed out loud, and waited for my password to arrive by e-mail (encrypted magically with no public or private keys). The next day, the guy's boss phoned me and, after an ID check, gave me my new password over the phone. [PJ]
+++ ORB leader bought out
Announced at Comdex, Borland is to buy the CORBA player, Visigenic. We find ourselves wondering if Borland will have the nous to handle this specialised area as well as Visigenic has been doing - with a series of high-profile deals, Roger Sipple has taken the former PostModern Computing and made it, as Visigenic, a leader in CORBA, at least in market awareness - through a series of high profile OEM deals, We guess the sale is motivated by the uphill struggle in moving from OEM sales to end user deals, and the inevitable wait for any mass CORBA market. More at http://www.borland.com/about/press/1997/visigenic.html
+++ Microsoft's Instant Intranet
The idea of linking a standard desktop full of applications to the intranet has obvious appeal and it's something Microsoft has been working on for quite some time. First came add-ins and tools to make day to day desktop applications such as Word or Access output HTML. The process was carried further in the "web-aware" Office97 Suite (Corel has been following the same route with its Suite but probably went a bodge too far with its Java Word Processor). A few months ago they joined forces with HP to release a dual CD "Intranets Start Here" kit. While chock full of ideas and samples, it was perhaps a bit overwhelming for the average workgroup - probably the level at which the corporate intranet will really find its metier and take off.
Now the Office team have come up with their "Instant Intranet". A series of free templates provide instant (we repeat the claim because we've tried it and it's true) intranet modules for such things as channels and news boards. It is designed to slot into the FrontPage Editor/Explorer and a site with FrontPage extensions (also available free from Microsoft for a variety of servers and platforms), but in fact much of the functionality of a desktop to intranet model of working can be obtained without the FrontPage element. http://www.microsoft.com/office/intranet
+++ A plethora of editors
Microsoft's FrontPage98 is out; Sausage Software's HotDogPro is in beta 6 of version 4.5 and Info Access' HTML Transit version 3 is out in beta. We like and use them all. http://www.microsoft.com/frontpage http://www.sausage.com http://www.infoaccess.com
+++ and one we haven't tried yet
+++ Useful new apps site
Newapps.com have created a complete archive of internet related software. As new software is released it is added to the NewApps software archive sorted by category. There are links to browsers, mail clients, web site tools and over 100 other category pages. We also subscribe to their free daily 'zine. http://www.newapps.com
+++ Smarter browsing?
If you liked the idea of WebTurbo, odds are you'll like Alexa too. Alexa is based on the principle that context helps us browse better and that "the community's" collective knowledge helps provide context. Alexa supplies site background information, a "where to go next" feature based on the anonymous choices of other users, messaging to other online users and (here's a twist), cross-reference to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Websters Online Dictionary and Thesaurus. Alexa is available free. http://www.alexa.com
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(C) Copyright 1997, Peter Judge and Christopher Ogg