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Conference in San Diego



Just a brief report on the conference in San Diego. There were 90 people
so the meeting room (max 100) was pretty full.  A solid contingent were
SGML lifers and old vendor hacks.  There were a pleasing number of
Europeans: AIS, STEP, Steve Pepper, some folks from Volvo, some defense
people from Britain.  There were also some of the conference's intended
audience - people who were looking at SGML and wondering about the
business case.  Also a few existing heavy SGML users, like for example
Caterpillar, who are facing the web deployment issues.

I led off with a half-day tour of XML; I had 72 slides that covered
pretty well every paragraph of the spec (well, I didn't try to explain
so-called nondeterministic grammars, nor will I, this side of the
grave).  I had no trouble getting through this in 2.5 hours.  Some parts
of the delivery were awkward and there is certainly room for improvement
in the art & craft of teaching XML, but it's a start.  Eve was there and
took careful notes regarding inaccuracies and problems; when she gets
those to me I'll revise the slides and put them up on a web site
somewhere.   Sitting prominently in the front row was Charles
Goldfarb - the symbolic Dr. Goldfarb, one might say.

I turned the stage over to Jon Bosak for the last 15 minutes; he
gave a progress report on the state of the standard, and some
cautionary notes about dangers that should be avoided in discussing
XML's relationship to HTML and SGML.

After lunch, and the usual welcoming noises from Norm Scharpf, Pam
Gennusa, and myself, Jim Sterken, Arbortext supremo, give the opening
keynote; basically an SGML vendor's take on the advent of XML.  He
was basically optimistic.  He was worried, quite reasonably, about
how we approach the great unexplored middle between the needs of
Joe Homepage and those of the Boeing 777 document manager.  He was
also concerned about pricing pressure.

Afternoon break, then Bruce Sharpe of SoftQuad (VP Development and
Peter's brother) talked at length about XML, HTML and Web publishing
from the (currently fashionable) viewpoint of "knowledge management".
The arguments for XML in this context (like, HTML is dumb, y'know)
are pretty straightforward and I won't reproduce them.  Bruce was able
(not till the next day) to present the SQ press release that has been
discussed here.

Jean Paoli followed Bruce, giving all of Microsoft's excellent reasons
for liking XML - first and foremost was that the Web is too slow and the 
best way to fix that is to cut down on server roundtrips, and the best
way to do that is to load smarter documents down and let client code
do smart things with them.  They've already got a nice setup in the
forthcoming IE ship to do this with tabular data, and XML lets text
in the door.  For his Q&A, Jean invited Adam Bosworth up; Adam is
Jean's boss, a general manager on the Microsoft IE team, and as
former parent of Access and Quattro Pro, a force to reckon with.
Adam fielded two questions, the first about the yawning gap between
the home-page author and the professional publisher - he also
acknowledged that it was tough to see where to go; pointing out that
Microsoft probably isn't interested in addressing any market where
they can't move a million units.  Second, he was asked, given that
many people think it would be desirable for Internet Explorer to
do direct XML support, what did they need to hear from us in order
to make this happen?  His answer: reassurance that if Microsoft
did this, that people would use it, thus giving Microsoft an advantage
in the struggle for market share.  He wondered how many people in
the room would think this a good idea; every hand went up amid a round
of applause.  He also praised XML's simplicity and exhorted us not
to compromise this.  My take?  They'll do it, sooner or later.  
Marketing issues aside, XML neatly solves several technical problems
that are in the way of bleeding-edge Web development.

This ended Monday's speeches.  We adjourned to the world's first-ever
XML trade show, excellent hors-d'oeuvre and free drinks in a covered
tennis court.  Arbortext was showing off Adept, reading & writing
XML - they had a tough time making an interesting demo out of loading
and saving SGML files, then exposing tags to show the <EMPTY/> ones, 
but I was impressed.  Two companies were showing SGML-savvy document
management, Texcel's Information Manager and Chrystal's Astoria.
Both look good to me - unfortunately I didn't get around to asking
for their take on XML.  AIS was showing a way-cool XML Internet
Explorer plug-in built with Balise - it isn't a product and I
can't imagine it will be given Microsoft's likely moves, but it was 
a nice demo for Balise.  Inso was showing DynaWeb, and while they
weren't saying anything publicly, given that the Dyna-* products have
been doing XML under the covers for years, it would be surprising
if they didn't jump in XML's direction soon.

Tuesday morning opened with case studies.  Jared Sorenson of Novell
(attention future conference chairthingies - Jared is a *good*
speaker) telling the Novell story.  ROI to the max, we're talking
millions per year in Novell's case.  Especially interesting to me
was the continuing opposition to SGML at Novell, in the old days from
the WYSIWYG'ers, now from the HTML-rules folks.  Todd Freter (a former
member of that Novell team, as is Jon Bosak) then discussed the
current work at Sun on AnswerBook - preaching somewhat to the choir,
but once again full of good solid SGML arguments for those who need
them.  Eric Skinner of Omnimark went last, showing how Omnimark
uses SGML and microdocuments to automate the devilishly complex
task of installing the Omnimark product.

Tuesday's second session was the integration heavies.  First was
SGML veteran Eric Severson, now a technology integrator with IBM
Global Solutions.  He gave us a really good tour of the basic SGML
business case - richer data creates more evenues for competition
between information providers; competition is good.  Peter Lamb,
Andersen Consulting's world-wide #1 on document technologies, gave
a skeptical but enlightening address - pointing out that the stock
market is still very dubious about SGML companies, then moving through
a series of Andersen predictions about the shape of publishing 
technologies in the short and medium term.  His strongest point was
that if SGML and XML are to prevail, they will have to do so on the
basis of a sound business case, not because of any intrinsic technology
elegance.  Norm Scharpf asked Peter a really good question - in the
printing industry at least, the state of EDI is pretty poor - these
systems are a major pain to set up, and seem to require all sorts
of special bilateral arrangements.  Peter agreed that this seems
like a favorable arena for technologies like XML.

After lunch we explored the publishing dimension.  First up was
Wes Hair of Inso (formerly EBT) - a company that knows whereof it
speaks on electronic publishing.  Wes gave a solid walk-through on
the case for doing things right, i.e. with SGML.  Second was Liora
Alschuler, standing in for Seybold's Mark Walter - she took a
look at publishing from the writer's view, declaiming that the
authoring systems for SGML just have to be a lot better than they
are if most SGML is ever to be the product of authors rather than
of conversion software.  Finally she (controversially) predicted
that downstream, there will be room for both HTML and one of SGML
and XML, but perhaps not for both SGML and XML.  I don't agree, but
that's what conferences are for.

The final session was the most entertaining.  Dr. Robert McHenry,
editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, gave an address
entitled "Copernicus" which I shall refrain from trying to summarize,
except to say that it toured through the history of science,
mainframe reference publishing systems, being on the inside of a 
paradigm shift, had really handsome graphics, and ended with kind
words for XML.  He pretty clearly won the conference applause meter
sweepstakes.  The closing keynote was Charles Goldfarb, who opened with 
a vary precise explanation of the relationship of SGML to HTML (an 
application) and XML (a profile), with useful charts, which I fully intend 
to steal and re-use heavily.  The body of his talk was concerned with 
the process of selling SGML and XML - which starts that pointing out 
that communication is impossible without rendering information, that 
rendering demands the use of style, and that style is by definition 
volatile and evanescent - but the underlying information is probably 
deserving of a longer-lived treatment.  As always, his slides had the best
graphics of the conference.

I'd like to close by repeating my final remarks, which were a hearty
thank-you to the speakers, who exhibited nearly insane courage in
agreeing (in January) to come speak at a conference for which we had no 
way of predicting the attendence, on the subject of a technology
which did not really exist yet.  What will the next big XML conference
look like?  Beats me.

Cheers, Tim Bray
tbray@textuality.com http://www.textuality.com/ +1-604-708-9592