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To those who have worked for two decades on establishing SGML as a key technology for publishing, the opening day of Seybold San Francisco was a moment to savor. From the opening keynotes, where even John Warnock talked more about the need for structure than the benefits of WYSIWYG, to the afternoon panels, where meta-data was described as the "key to good content management," XML -- or simplified SGML -- was the hot new technology of the day.

The surprising aspect was the extent to which mainstream vendors were voicing their support for XML. Warnock, who said "asset management was a big deal," but failed to spell out any Adobe strategy for addressing it, at least acknowledged that XML was on the "short list of things the FrameMaker group will do." (Lest anyone get their hopes up too high, under questioning Warnock all but dismissed the notion that PDF might one day carry SGML source data.)

Netscape shows RDF support

Warnock was followed by Mike Homer of Netscape, who unveiled Aurora, a forthcoming component of Netscape Communicator. Aurora is a taxonomy navigator driven by RDF -- the Resource Description Framework written in XML syntax. Using metadata, Aurora presents a simple hierarchical tree for navigating your own personal view of networked information. Aurora pulls together information from disparate sources, including local file, personal e-mail, shared projects, databases, calendars and, of course, Web pages. Assuming all these sources have metadata that can be exposed or exported as RDF, Aurora lets the user create views of information by subject, rather than by application. Working documents, e-mail, multimedia and Web pages related to a project can all be viewed in the context of the project, rather than just through the context of the file system or their originating application. The effect is an integrated information viewer, or, more simply, the cohesive "webtop." It is the challenge to the Microsoft desktop for which we've been waiting.

Microsoft counters with IE 4

But Microsoft was not to be outdone so easily. After the lunch break, Microsoft announced XML support in Internet Explorer 4, which is being released today. Jean Paoli, the SGML expert the IE team recruited from Grif, explained that IE 4 has two XML parsers -- one in Java and one in C -- the first steps toward having a browser that can interpret and display XML-tagged documents.

At the same time, across the hall a panel discussing cross-media publishing described how metadata serves as the basis for organizing and managing document components, and how XML data, with design models, templates and style sheets, can feed a new generation of tools for creating both online and printed documents -- without the big tradeoffs in quality that one might expect.

Unifying worlds

The most sweeping endorsement of XML came from John Gage, the scientific wit from Sun Microsystems. Drawing a parallel to PostScript, which provides an abstract way to describe graphical pages, Gage positioned XML, and its style sheet component, XSL, as nothing less than the future of computing. Noting that the computing industry is obsessed with "aggressive abstraction," trying to make both software and the data it manipulates as neutral and portable as possible, Gage predicted that XML/XSL will be the glue that will integrate EDI, databases and even operating systems. The result, concluded Gage, will be that "the computer [becomes] an extensible, linked document and database," taking us past the original visions of hypertext pioneered by Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson into a new era in which documents are readily created (rather than prebuilt) views of information pulled from disparate sources.

Yet the most apt characterization of the day may have been that of Paul Trevithick, founder of Archetype, which recently merged with Bitstream. The veteran developer of composition engines, prefacing a demo of his latest NuDoc technology, described XML as "the revenge of the 40-somethings" -- those old enough to recognize the power of using a generic metalanguage like SGML to solve publishing problems, yet young enough to be willing to make it simpler, so that a younger generation engrossed with the Web would take advantage of it.

After years of being dismissed as "fringe fanatics," the SGML believers could hardly believe their ears. Sweet revenge, to be vindicated by the masses that spurned them for so long.

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