[Mirrored from: http://www.bim.be/BeLuxweb/Newsletter/N31A3.HTM]

SGML '95 in Boston

The organizers characterized it as a "total immersion" event demonstrating the acceptance of the Standard Generalized Markup Language, the maturity of the related technology and the emergence of related standards. Formal presentations, poster sessions, the vendor exposition, evening tracks, pre- and post-conference meetings: SGML '95 in Boston has been the biggest event ever devoted to ISO 8879 and related standards.

The Sheraton hotel in Boston hosted the SGML Conference already in 1993. This time, the spacious accomodation proved insufficient and some of the events had to be moved to the nearby Hynes Convention Center. So many things were happening at the same time that the 'Conference at a glance' leaflet, showing a detailed schedule, was probably the most common item in the hands of the attendees. Equally impressive was the number of attendees: 975 people registered, which reflects the increase by about 250 each year since 1992.

A detailed description of all presentations and discussions would take more than can be presented on these pages; therefore, we will concentrate on what we consider as highlights: the World-Wide-Web, data conversion, market trends and the future of SGML and its related standards.


Two years ago, few people at the Conference had heard about the 'Web'. Last year, most SGML veterans were anxious to explain that HTML was "only an application" of SGML. This year, the discussion continued between people seeing HTML only as an output format and those who argue that HTML can be used to create, maintain and deliver their data. I believe that Eric Severson, from Avalanche, summed it up correctly: the problem with full SGML and arbitrary DTDs is that the browser doesn't have any idea of the associated semantics, while HTML can be seen as a common set of semantics, combining simplicity of use with extensibility. As few people will ever think about creating a fax of letter in SGML, even so can simple documents be created straightaway in HTML. Large and complex Web servers will benefit from being well-structured and can deliver HTML `on the fly'.

Tim Bray (of Open Text Corp.) summarized the advantages of HTML: the world wants it, it will display on everything, you don't have to write the GUI, it's cheap and easy to generate. On the other hand, fight for the highest possible quality in all strategic documents (insist on SGML), don't try authoring in HTML or using it in a repository. In short, you can't fight it - deal with it.

Data Conversion

An important number of presentations were dedicated to conversion in and out of SGML and between different flavors of SGML. Conversion of legacy data presents many pitfalls and many service providers have encountered financial disaster due to unforeseen difficulties in one or another large project. All speakers seemed to agree that the power of SGML should be used at an early stage in the conversion, possibly taking advantage of tag minimization and "SHORTREF" features.

Jeff Suttor (of Passage Systems) compared four ways of converting from SGML to SGML, i.e. from one DTD to another. He made a distinction between custom programming, architectural forms, link process definitions, and DSSSL STTP. He also saw an increasing degree of adherance to SGML and related standards when going through those mechanisms. At this moment, no tools exist for DSSSL-based processing.

Old and new tools

The vendor exhibition had the flavor of a real 'fair' (so had the cost of participating). Major american vendors cannot afford to be absent from this event. The effect of acquisitions were visible: the booth of Adobe with Frame+SGML was very impressive and seemed to demonstrate the engagement Adobe has taken to further enhance the product offering and support. At the time of the Conference, the future of WordPerfect was still unsecure. Together with Adobe, they sponsored the Conference bags (without the Novell logo). The Novell red was, however, still prominent at their booth and one of the most heard questions was:"What colour will your shirt have next year?"

The booth of TimeLux, our SGML BeLux General Assembly member, was well visited. They still are a pioneer with their editor supporting Unicode. It appears that established vendors are only starting to develop Unicode versions of their products. Well received was also Information Manager from Texcel, an native SGML repository with workflow and release facilities.

Poster sessions

Poster sessions are small-scale presentations where the essentials are shown on one or two posters and where the presenter stands aside to explain and to answer questions. Posters stay on display for the whole of the Conference.There were more than hundred posters.

Philippe Vijghen, our General Assembly member from BIM Engineering Europe, presented the EDIDOC server developed for the European Space Agency. In addition to communication, security and groupware aspects, EDIDOC promotes the use of SGML for documents by providing services such as conformance checking and recipient-dependent conversions. SGML is also used as the format for structuring inter-process data exchange. I presented a poster on when producing SGML instances with a word processor can be useful and when not.

Current state and future of SGML

SGML Purity

On the first Conference day, Charles Goldfarb presented a scheme for assigning levels of recognition to products claiming SGML capabilities, partial or otherwise. Dr. Goldfarb sees a system where levels of SGML capability could be recognized for a product:

Dr. Goldfarb will create a WWW site where users can rate their appreciation of commercial products. Such rating will be controlled, to avoid massive voting actions by one or another vendor. I heard a lot of criticism by vendors on this initiative (the end-user isn't always supposed to be educated), but Dr Goldfarb's initiative may be very helpful to assist newcomers (good tools don't have to be afraid of a public rating?)

LINK Processes

With James Clark's public domain SP parser now supporting link process definitions, some SGML gurus have discovered the feature. Eliot presented why he demands the LINK feature to be retained) in future versions of the SGML standard. As a bridge between an SGML document and its processing on a system, LINKs provide a standardized way to associate processing to elements in a hierarchical way. LINKs are sometimes to be preferred above DSSSL processing. Kimber deplored that LINK isn't used more widely.


The Document Style and Semantics Specification Language will probably be finalized as ISO standard 10179 in the course of 1996. Many attendees thought that DSSSL would be the big topic of the Conference. There were some tutorial sessions and status reports, but most people remained with an attitude of "wait and see" for the possibilities and application of DSSSL to realize.

General appreciation

SGML has now entered into the mainstream; as the late Yury Rubinsky put it:"... For the first time, SGML has become an established and useful part of the IT landscape." Having attended earlier SGML Conferences, I couldn't help but have a feeling of déjà vu. A lot of information was not really new or surprising. These events organized by the Graphic Communications Association have lost a bit of the revolutionary 'drive' which characterized earlier ones. I suppose that also indicates that SGML is getting widely accepted and used. The whole was organized in a very professional and efficient way. The three concurrent tracks allowed you to select your own programme, proceedings were of good quality and everything runned very smoothly.

Jacques Deseyne
SEMA Group Belgium
Stallestraat 96
B-1180 Brussels
Tel. +32 2 333 53 24
Fax. +32 2 333 55 22