Saturday, November 19, 2005

XML 2005: Document Formats

As chair of this session, it seems appropriate I provide personal notes. First, let me compliment all attendees on the tremendous and evident respect they brought to the discussion and each other. You are clearly leaders and deservedly so. While none, I think, believed decisions could be made in the town hall, your seeking common understanding in respectful debate was a marvel to experience. Thank you.

The following are questions that were in my opinion, pivotal in the discussion with my personal opinions about the issues arising from them.

1. What is open?

A clear consensus for this question did not emerge. All sides have valid arguments for the technologies they sell, specify and standardize. Questions of the open and closed market models resolve to company choice.

Opinion: The participation agreements of the consortia make adoption and participation separable. While there is an emerging consensus on the qualities of openness, their is no policy or means of enforcement without a clear means of identification. It may be sufficient to say that open is best defined in accordance with the policies of the publishing authority such as OASIS or the W3C given an ontology of concepts for that term and the provability of assertions of duty in the records of authority for the obligated parties. It will be well for the market if such ontologies are sharable among consortia and government alike. This is a significant challenge.

NOTE: Tim Bray made the valid point that the participants in the discussion are not legal experts. IANAL.

Opinion: It is clear that all sides have market ambitions. Mutual interests are likely to converge around costs of sustaining loss leader technologies. A specification represents opportunity; a standard represents market reality as costs to producer and consumer. The advantage of a standard to the vendor is that development costs can be shared and components are interoperable. The advantage to the consumer is that costs can be controlled. A clear shared interest is cost control.

2. What is open enough?

Given item one, there is no consensus here. However, this is where the most progress is being made. XML provides the opportunity to create a common markup for word processing document types and much technology is being provided for systems to share formats. At issue is sharing semantics such that the rendering and behavioral qualities are predictable and reliable for the end user as far as possible.

Opinion: The concern expressed by Microsoft was early adoption of standards such as XSD are costly and if not well liked, contribute to premature obsolescence. In my opinion, this is a risk all early adopters take. The vendor is expected to evaluate a specification and the process of its development. Thus, this is not simple a question of open enough, but also, good enough. In the market, I expect consumers to understand the relative development maturity of software and to choose wisely. It works for cars and other consumer goods. All sides assume this risk.

The concern expressed by open software advocates has both practice and egalitarian appeals. They assert that open specifications developed by all of the market vendors provide the best software, a position sometimes known as, the wisdom of crowds. However, XSD. It is a workable technology, but is it the best or good enough? So in fairness, this wisdom does not always work as advertised. If the best advice is to create as few languages as possible, parties must create very good ones or this strategy saddles the market with mediocrity.

Again, this is a risk of early adopters. RelaxNG is a viable alternative. The problem of the market is sales cycle. A vendor does not see a customer again for some time. The question of standardization can vary by application. The strategy of specification over standardization is to give the market time to decide. Given this, for specification of new products, it is prudent to standardize as little as possible to enable decisions to be made more granularly and timely.

The winning strategy is found in reducing the complexity of the application itself, such that the end user is receiving only those components clearly needed by role and task or preference. This is where the question for egalitarian positions is: given the disadvantage accrues to the vendor with the most legacy, how does the vendor adopt an open specification if the immediate results break fiduciary duty to the company ownership?

But is this question that cut and dry?

Metaphorically, legacy is to market what mass is to momentum and distance traveled over time. If one suddenly cuts the mass, the distance over time can beat the speed of light. An example as Matt Fuchs pointed out over breakfast is XML itself. The task of refactoring SGML for web applications cut mass. Then the market achieved momentum and distance.

So, if the answer to what is open enough is, the market chooses and what the market chooses becomes the standard, then a specification must achieve enough mass in terms of users to achieve momentum. The conundrum is the vendor of a product with sufficient legacy releases a large number of customers as well as software support when legacy is terminated. So the vendor will wait until the software components and the language achieve a point of inflection.

Analysis of Outcome: The open document community must keep up the pressure. Microsoft will implement openDoc as part of a strategy to move their customers from their loss leaders to lower cost software that enables a switch to service systems. The question is timing and the complaint is that this is not an open market. This is not as open a market as some need or think more provident to more companies, but it is an opportunity to do this better than the current marjority market leader.

Because a standard becomes a game model where the evolutionary stable strategy is a Nash equilibrium, it is best to defer standardization until need is clear to all parties. Disruption isn't always good, but winning need not be defined as owning.

Offtopic Lessons Learned at XML 2005

Bloggers with technical training and technical assignments are blogging the important lessons of XML 2005. I am neither. I've never contributed a single topic or technical item of any importance to XML or the web in general. I am a pundit, an observer of the mammals, and really, just a poet/songwriter. Life among the mammals fascinates me and I do pay attention to that. In a technical world of technical assignments, that is offtopic. Let those who care to read, read, and otherwise, must-ignore applies here.

Lessons learned:

  • Once a greased pig is let loose, no man or woman is its master. There may be a profound lesson about XML and/or the web there.

  • To keep coyotes away, kill one and nail its corpse to the fencepost. Texans have known this for years. That explains the career of the Dixie Chicks.

  • In the American South, addressing a woman as "mad'm" is a gesture of respect. In other parts of the world, it's a putdown. Tolerance is best.

  • Science often gives evidence for things best ignored in polite conversation. Let the world work out the consequences for that which it cannot admit.

  • Snakes fear their handlers. Understanding that is the key to keeping them as pets.

  • At every markup conference I've attended, there is a group of contractors and civil servants telling the audience that the lack of interoperability among Tri-service (think DoD) systems nearly caused the last war to be lost. This problem either has no solution or the lack of a solution is profitable. Since the web is an existence proof that whole continents of festering souls have achieved communications over systems that interoperate, it may be time to look at that second possibility squarely and meanly.

  • On the other hand, in a world where keeping secrets and only giving information within a legal framework designed to protect human rights and freedom, it is very hard to interpret the law and apply the technology while still doing those jobs. Future-proof seldom is.

  • I am told that at the last three markup conferences I've attended, I've 'chatted up' at least one brilliant beautiful woman. Guilty as charged. No remorse. Brilliant beautiful woman are not only fun, they can be the best friends a po'boy ever has. It's not about one-nighters; it's about life long friendship with someone I wish to care about because they are capable of caring even if they don't. As the song says, "I can't make you love me if you don't.", but I can get to know you in that short time granted. That is treasure enough and a good reason for what others might consider, bad behavior. As a friend said to me, "You can never know what goes between two people". It is possibly less than you think and more important than you can know.

  • It isn't always best to sit at the front table. The informative conversations are often with people who's acquaintence was a random accident. I crabwalked my way into my career and that is a design pattern.

  • The music industry is corrupt because of its origins in the nightclubs and speakeasys of the early part of the 20th century. The book industry is not corrupt because of its origins in the patronage of nobles some centuries earlier. The people managing the room make the difference. The reason for the success of the web and XML is because of the values of the very small groups of scientists, technicians and humanists who created these. That they cohere and persist are the driving and shaping forces. As these people fade from the scene, the only guarantor of future success, that this *stuff* does as little harm as possible, is the persistence of those values. For that reason, even though there may be no technical contributions, it is important that stories be told, examples made, and that these people be both honored and remembered. I was most glad to see Jim Mason honored and to converse with some of the other SGML cognoscenti. They took care of me when I was younger and just as dumb as I am today. It is about the people, not the stuff. If you really intend to "do no evil", remember that while you are building these marvelous toys.

  • If the room staff accidentally breaks your $50 Norelco, it is good luck that it happen in an expensive hotel that replaces it out of the overpriced gift shop with a $100 Remington. ;-)

  • Kids always like the t-shirts you bring home. Dad's live for the hugs.
  • The Goblet of Fire

    After a long drive, a nap and a cup of coffee, I went to see Harry Potter: The Goblet of Fire with Dana, Buddha and the Boo. It is excellent. The makers really got this right. It is not for younger children but for anyone else that likes this kind of thing, this is that kind of thing. The special effects are purposeful and stunning. The action is fast and the plot is not belabored as it is in the book with foreshadowing details.

    Because the main characters are well-established at this point, they play no more time on the screen than necessary to keep the plot moving. Yet, the movie does take all the time needed to put the values the author says are so important to the stories front and center: loyalty, courage, tenacity, inventiveness, friendship, love and learning. When Hermione chews Ron after the dance, we see that magic or not, the struggle to grow up is what establishes those values, and at the end, change will come; so we best value what we value, fight for it and understand life is not without loss no matter how strong we are, how magical, how clever, or how well loved.

    Well done. Go see. Enjoy.

    Sunday, November 13, 2005

    XML 2005: Y'all Come

    Off to Atlanta this week for XML 2005. I am looking forward to spending the time with friends and being tutored on the latest developments in XML and the Web. These are exciting times. Many years of work have blossomed and the world wide open communications we dreamed about years ago have come into being. Many of the people who made that happen will be there.

    This is fun. This is real. And it makes a difference. Since this year XML 2005 is being held in a great Southern city, as we say here in the South, Y'all come.

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