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Yuri's Legacy

The first person to introduce me to SGML was Yuri Rubinsky, the cofounder and president of SoftQuad who passed away in 1996. I wasn't sure I liked SGML when I first saw it, but I liked Yuri, who had a real passion for typesetting and an appreciation for the craft of printing a book. He published a number of books on a wide range of subjects, including a fantasy on Columbus returning to present-day America.

SoftQuad's first product line was a commercial version of troff, the quirky but lovable text-formatting system that originated as an integral part of the UNIX operating system at Bell Labs. We used troff at O'Reilly & Associates to produce technical manuals. That experience led Tim O'Reilly and me to write UNIX Text Processing, which was published by Hayden/Sams books at about the time we were starting to become publishers ourselves.

SGML was designed for publishers to replace systems like troff, which combines structural markup (usually macros) with low-level formatting requests. But SGML was overly complex and the formatting tools never quite developed to the point to provide the same kind of control available with troff.

SoftQuad became one of the early SGML tools companies, developing an SGML editor called Author/Editor that could interface with SoftQuad's troff product to provide a complete publishing system. The greatest achievement of this system might have been the complicated production of Charles Goldfarb's The SGML Handbook for Oxford University Press.

Author/Editor never caught on outside the defense industry and government agencies, where SGML was heavily used. However, with the growth of the Web, a development fork of Author/Editor became HoTMetaL, a tag-oriented editor that was constrained to HTML documents. Author/Editor was sold to Interleaf, while HoTMetaL was SoftQuad's entry into the Web tools market.

Yuri might have seen XMetaL as brokering a suitable marriage between SGML and the Web, one that can help make the Web a better place. Yuri was driven by such ideals, and he saw SGML as an enabler for those who need to receive information in nontraditional formats. I remember him proudly showing me a book that he had created simultaneously in standard print and in Braille from SGML files. In his memory, the Yuri Rubinsky Insight Foundation was set up to carry on this mission, helping to make information more accessible to the disabled. (For more information, visit www.yuri.org.)