XML Is Here to Stay (I Promise)
A few years back, I was giving a presentation about all the wonderful things our company was going to be able to do with XML, and that we should get to it. Only thing was, our company was in the midst of being acquired by a major Dutch company that had a pretty strong reputation in their handling of XML (names have been omitted to protect the innocent).
I got to a stopping point in the presentation and asked if there were any questions. A veteran production editor, a woman who had seen more change than a toll-taker on the Jersey Turnpike, put up her hand and asked: “This all sounds great, but doesn’t the new company have its own plan for handling XML? Aren’t things going to change when they take over?”
I answered: “Yes, but we are proceeding ahead with our plans, and will adjust accordingly when we have to.”
Her response: “So you’re telling me that this is the two-year plan that’s good for six months? OK, I can live with that.”
It got a great laugh, and was one of those moments that stick with you years later, not just because it was a clever line, but because it was an important point. And she is as right today as she was then.
A question was raised the other day that made me think back to this time, and about this specific point. The question came during the webinar, “Paving the Way for eBook Production and Beyond: A Practical Approach to Digital-First,” presented by Book Business (the event is archived for 90 days here). On the event’s Twitter feed, a person asked: “Why do I have a feeling that whenever we get to XML workflow, the world will have moved on? And to WHAT?”
A great question, and also very telling. And if you’ll permit me (hey, it’s my blog, and I’ll cry if I want to), I’d like to offer a response.
The world will most certainly NOT move on from XML anytime soon, but that’s not even the best part. Even if I’m wrong (hey, it’s been known to happen) and the world does move on, you will still not lose the value that you have placed in your data within the tag set.
Why is this?
Two of the biggest and most oft-cited benefits of XML are at play here, and that is, one, its media neutrality, and two, its ability to make your content future-proof. Let’s take a look at those two aspects of XML and then ask the question again.
Media neutrality: This means that XML is not specific to any hardware device or software program. You will never need a particular program to access your XML, which is a pretty cool thing. Can you say the same thing about MS Word files? What about when Microsoft upgrades to Version 2015 and decides to not make it “backwards compatible?” This is nothing against Microsoft or any other solution provider, but the important thing is that the control—the *keys* to your data—are not with the content holders anytime you use proprietary software to mark up text, be it Word, InDesign or any other Off-the-Shelf system. With XML, which is really just text (seriously, you could use NotePad to work with it, or any other Text-based tool, if you had to), you are not tied to any specific software.
Future-proof content: This is very closely related to the media-neutrality issue, but it basically means that anything you do to tag your content in XML will be around for years to come. Again, because it is text-based, you cannot be tied to any particular file platform. But the other important thing is, because XML is just text, you could convert (really “transform” is the better word) from XML into the next big thing, whatever that may be. And I don’t like putting it that way, because there is no “next big thing.”
Now don’t get me wrong. There is indeed such a thing as bad XML. Not properly considering what your use of the XML will be can get you in a lot of trouble. My friend, Thane Kerner of Silverchair, has a joke about being able to put anything in XML (it usually involves cocktail napkins, ‘nuff said). What that means is that there is absolutely no guarantee that you will be able to fully leverage the power of XML unless you do things the right way. But that is a very different thing from not being able to get to your XML.
One quick example: Back in the 90s, most forward-thinking publishers were tagging their content – particularly journal articles – in SGML. XML was adopted as a standard in the late 90s, and there were a few years where publishers could legitimately argue for using either SGML or XML. It really didn’t matter, because they were so close in structure and rules in the way publishers were using them. But even when SGML “went away” for many publishers, their content was not lost. They may have transformed or converted content into XML, but they didn’t lose any of the intelligence embedded in the tag sets. If something else replaced XML in the future, this same “portability” of content would play out in the same way.
So XML is not going anywhere, and even if it did, the importance of XML is in how you use it, and that much is guaranteed to be portable. Any investment you make in enriching content today in XML will be preserved as straight text, future proof and media neutral.
And that’s my two-year guarantee that is good for a bit more than six months.
Jabin White is Vice President of Content Management for ITHAKA, an organization committed to helping the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways. ITHAKA provides several services to the academic community, including JSTOR and Portico, which increase access to scholarly materials and ensure their preservation for future generations.
With a heavy background in XML theory and practice, White has spent most of his career evangelizing the benefits of markup languages and related technologies, including content management, workflow enhancements and authoring tools.
Prior to joining ITHAKA, White served as Director of Strategic Content at Wolters Kluwer Health's Professional & Education (P&E) Division, Vice President, STM Sales for Scope eKnowledge Center, and VP of Product Development at Silverchair, Inc., a leading developer of information solutions for health care publishers.
He also spent five years as Executive Director of Electronic Production at Elsevier, serving the Health Sciences Division. White started in health sciences publishing as an editorial assistant at Current Medicine and has held digital publishing positions at Mosby, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins and Unbound Medicine. He is a graduate of Wake Forest University with a BA in history and has a Masters in Business Administration from Pennsylvania State University.