SGML: SGML [Europe] 96 Conference Report

SGML: SGML [Europe] 96 Conference Report

From @UTARLVM1.UTA.EDU:owner-tei-l@UICVM.CC.UIC.EDU Fri May 31 12:46:32 1996
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Date:         Thu, 30 May 1996 18:04:23 CDT
Reply-To: Lou Burnard <>
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From: Lou Burnard <>
Subject:      SGML [Europe] 96 Conference Report
To: Multiple recipients of list TEI-L <TEI-L@UICVM.UIC.EDU>


       VISIT REPORT (2)

SGML Europe 96 was held this year in a very large and expensive hotel in
Munich, adjacent to what would have been very pleasant park if the
weather had been less damp. I travelled there from the Tyrol by train,
thus missing the opening ceremonies (by all accounts a rather lachrymose
affair, this being the first major conference since the death of Yuri
Rubinsky to whose memory the event was dedicated), but saving the TEI
the cost of an extra night's stay in said hotel. I did arrive in time to
hear Charles Goldfarb give his "Inventor's Keynote", from which I
learned that Charles has been thinking about the World Wide Web, and
perhaps regretting that he didn't take the chance to set Tim Berners-Lee
right about SGML when he had it. When titans meet, Dr Goldfarb opined,
one should find another field -- sound advice, with reference to web
browser wars, but rather defeatist for those of us who think that the
SGML community might have something to learn from the runaway success of
the web. Key events of the year were the publication of DSSSL; and some
reorganization and realignment of various competing areas of HyTime and
DSSSL activities, notably the definition of the Standard Document Query
Language and of the HyTime "general facilities" (aka the useful bits --
architectural forms, property sets, groves, formal system identifiers
etc). Charles also proudly announced his "Purity Test" for so-called
SGML-conformant applications, on which see, if you care about such

The real function of conferences like this one is not however to listen
to presentations, however inspirational, but to hobnob with the vendors,
who were there in force. There were three exhibition halls full of
variously sized booths to do this in, with almost all major players
represented (conspicuously absent were Microsoft and Novell) and many
minor ones, throughout the proceedings, pausing only for the evening
reception (on the 24th floor, commanding magnificent views of some very
damp tree tops). I duly hobnobbed, to the point of exhaustion, as did
most of the other 300 or so delegates, when not drifting in and out of

Here are a few of the software products that made some impression on me:
some newish SGML authoring tools, notably InContext (the new version is
now reduced in price to the point where we could actually afford it),
and Stilo, which is nearly available -- and both of which successfully
processed the TEI dtds under my suspicious gaze. Folio Views had put a
lot of money into free mugs and pads proclaiming "Folio does SGML" (I am
told that this is somewhat economical of the truth). Astoria, the new
SGML object database from Xerox, had an immense and very busy stand. At
the STEP booth, they were busily producing a daily news bulletin
directly from an online news feed, converting it automagically to SGML
and formatting and printing it in real time. Synex, makers of Panorama,
are now actively marketing their Viewport engine at a price we certainly
cannot afford. Jouve have a (comparatively) cheap and cheerful CD-ROM
production system called GTI publisher which could give DynaText a run
for its money. AIS have a new version of Balise (with a new logo) and a
new English manual on the stocks. At the cheaper end of the market, two
new application development toolkits were in evidence, one called
SGML-C, from Bruce Hunter, and the other, called NSL originally
developed for the Multext project by Henry Thompson. Both worth hunting
down on the net.

Even had I not been somewhat pre-occupied with getting my part of the
closing plenary session ready, it would have been impossible to take in
all this as well as the three parallel tracks, so my report is
necessarily somewhat fragmentary. I listened to a session on document
management systems, which included a good overview of issues in document
database design from John Chelsom, and a characteristically pragmatic
discussion of ways of building hybrid distributed document databases
from John McFadden (see I dipped in
and out of a major overview of SGML software tools organized by Steve
Pepper (Falch) and Robin Tomlin (SGML Open), in the hope that this would
stop defining criteria and start evaluating products (it didn't -- but
the overview was very thorough). I attended a session about the role of
SGML on the internet, which featured Eric van Herwijnen and Martin
Bryan, neither of whom had anything new to say on the subject (though
Eric had some nice pictures); Jon Bosak, in a different session, also
addressed the web and had some rather sharper comments to make: (see  I was rather
disappointed to find that no-one apparently had anything to say about
the importance of SGML as an archival format, or a metadata format, and
I don't think I heard the phrase "digital library" mentioned once in
four days, which seems odd. The conversations I heard in the halls were
all about document production and document management, the intranet and
improving your organization's information flow. I heard nothing about
ICADD or the TEI, or how SGML might be of use to the rest of us, which
was all rather depressing.

The final plenary began with Dale Waldt explaining at some length just
why commercial publishers love (or should love) SGML, which somewhat
reinforced my prejudices against them. I found myself speaking up for
academia and reminding the conference that maybe SGML had a more
significant role to play than just helping publishers and consultants
get rich, and that its true Destiny was to preserve our cultural
heritage. I also suggested that it really shouldn't be so difficult to
get started with SGML, the basic notions of which can be jotted down on
the back of an envelope, a theme which I was glad to see Tim Bray pick
up in his masterly wrap up of the whole proceedings (see Tim stopped in
the middle of his presentation (done like almost everyone else's with
Powerpoint), exported it as an HTML file with one click of the mouse,
and asked the question the SGML Industry really needs to answer: why is
it so difficult for vendors to build true SGML support in with
comparable user friendliness and simplicity?

Outside the conference, for the first time since I arrived in Germany,
the sun came out. It was a public holiday, so the park was full of
cheerful Bavarians drinking beer and eating sausages to the
accompaniment of an oom-pa band. Time to go home...