Saturday, December 08, 2007

Impressions of XML 2007 in Boston

I returned from the XML 2007 conference in Boston with my head spinning about all the new developments with XForms and XQuery. The conference was three days long and had between three and five tracks going concurrently. My impression was that there were about 400 people there.

Here are some of the highlights for me.

XForms appears to be getting lots of traction. The XForms sessions were all packed with standing-room only in most of them. The presenters we passionate that the combination of XForms, REST and XQuery has had a huge impact on their projects and may soon impact the rest of the development world.

Microformats are definitely starting to make huge strides where Metcalf's Law will start to kick in. The existence of 450 million tags and five FireFox microformat extensions indicate that within a year it will be just part of web publishing best practices. Even Microsoft is said to be supporting Microformats in IE 8, just a few years from now.

Taylor Cowan (who works for Sabre) gave an excellent presentation on how Microformats can be extended into the travel space with an Atom based format for publishing trip ideas. His use of Atom and semantic web technologies was right in line with my vision of how personalized agents are going to leverage microformats.

John Boyer's demo of IBM's Workplace Manager showed that you can now purchase top-shelf XForms GUI design tools that does not lock you into a proprietary vendor solution. I hope the people from Microsoft, Adobe, FairIsaac, Altova, Google GWT and other vendors take notice. Locking your users into a Java or JavaScript client is no longer an acceptable strategic option for developing web applications. Wake up everyone! Are you listening? We have a standard that works and lets now start building more great tools that use this standard. XForms is the only system that is creating as John puts it "Order of Magnitude" increases in developer productivity.

Mark Birbeck's Sidewinder demo showed that XForms is breaking out of the browser an on to the desktop. Showing web and iPhone web pages directly in desktop widgets was a great demonstration of the power of XForms.

Kurt Cagle's presentation about problems with programming with the fragile DOM model in JavaScript was interesting in its format. The presentation was actually an XForms application running on eXist. Kurt "eats his own dog food" on the client and the server! I am humbled by the man.

Jason Hunter from MarkLogic (an XML database vendor) gave an nice demo of the application and showed that, yes, XQuery databases really do scale to the terabyte range. He has about 4 million e-mail messages indexed and you can do combinations of database and text searches in a few seconds. In other words a demonstration of how real-world analytics comes to XQuery. I also found out that MarkLogic is free if your database is under 100MB. Perfect for 10MB of metadata in a metadata registry.

The people from IBM research labs appear to be starting to take the XForms MVC architecture and really run with it. We saw some very interesting presentations on how future standards for data driven XML Application Components (XACs) and State Chart XML (SCXML) might be used in the future to make browser-based mash-ups easier. Componentization, composition, customization and reuse are all part of this architecture and it would not be possible without XForms MVC architecture. Hopefully Charles Weicha from IBM research will post his slides so you can see more.

Norm Walsh also talked about how the new XML Pipeline standard (XProc) is starting to take shape. Even though the standard is still in working draft there are already at least five implementations of the standard. This single standard could have more impact on the shape of server-side processing then any other standard coming out of the w3c. Integrating this into XQuery-based application servers seems to be the next step.

The eXist database also seemed to clean up all the open source native XML database talks. eXist was mentioned in over a half-dozen presentations and there were no other native XML databases even mentioned in the presentations I attended. It is not surprising that eXist is now the top hit on Google when you search for "XML database".

One of the most interesting presentations that I did not get a chance to see (but I did talk to the presenter afterwards) was Thomas White's presentation on using XSLT in the browser to get a 10x speedup in form rendering. It turns out that implementations of XForms players like FromFaces use heavyweight JavaScript objects in the browser. Thomas has found that a donkey cart can be turned into a sports car by implementing an in-browser XSLT centric event scheduler. If his architecture is implemented we could see vastly better XForms players in the future. Lets all hope that Thomas's architecture comes to the XForms world sooner than later.

I did not attend any of the XML publishing tracks. But from the titles it appears that the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) standard is a hot topic. Presentations on using XSL-FO and CSS for book and other print publishing were also on the agenda.

I also did not attend too many of the XML in the Enterprise tracks. There were good presentations on XML accelerators, security and mining XML Schemas.

I am disappointed that the conference organizers did not do anything to require that people post their presentation on the web site before their talk. There were many very interesting presentations that could have a larger impact the world and the sloppiness of people not publishing their slides seems to be a little unprofessional. There were some people that just brought their digital cameras and took pictures of each slide. Smart.

In summary I think that the conference had two types of people:

First there were people that had not done extensive work with XForms. The first group I call the "evolutionary proceduralists". Theses were people that were trying to beat the dead horse by patching the old-style procedural web application architecture with JavaScript, JSON and AJAX hacks. They seemed to spend a lot of time arguing about the merits of JSON vs. XML as a data transport syntax.

The other type were "the enlightened innovators". People that have seen the real world benefits of dumping object middle-tier stacks and relational databases and going with a pure declarative approach to solving business problems based around XForms/REST and XQuery. These were the people that are going to lead innovations in application development.

I was also impressed how a large percentage of XML innovations came from outside the US. I attribute the fact that some of the best presentations came from the UK to be the "Michael Kay" effect.

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder At one of the XForms sessions a young Ruby advocate stated that he thought his Ruby code was "beautiful" but he did not himself think that XForms code was "beautiful". Most of the people in the audience agreed that XForms was beautiful but like any new language, it takes getting used to. Beauty is the process of your visual cortex recognizing familiar patterns and signaling your pleasure centers. If you have never read Japanese then the most profound Haiku written in the most beautiful script will not have beauty.

XForms/REST/XQuery to me is indeed beautiful. Its beauty comes from its ability to quickly map real-world requirements into working systems with high fidelity. No other system in the world approaches its elegant architecture. And after XML 2007 I realized I was not the only one that had independently reached this conclusion.

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