April 17, 2003 spout

XML For Humans

When I sat down to write this piece, I didn’t get why the work that Don, Gudge, KeithBa, Yasser, Tim and ChrisAn is doing is so amazing. I mean, I know that they’re smart and I know that they’re building the hell out of their stuff, but why? It seems like everyone that gets into blogging starts by writing their own blogging engine. It’s like C programmers writing editors, C++ programmers writing string classes and XML programmers writing XSD<->Class codegen. Sure, it’s a useful learning tool, but earth-shattering? Worth that much energy from that many guys? When they’re done, what great problems will be solved?

Don’t get me wrong. I love the that the web makes it easy for anyone to not only publish but also get an audience. I also love that there’s a protocol (RSS) that lets me subscribe to my favorite freelance authors in any one of dozens of tools (I’m into SharpReader today). I even like the Dear Diary style of writing because it leads itself to thoughts, feelings and insights that give me greater understanding of not only the topic but the author. As an added bonus, blog entries have turned into everything that’s good about mailing lists w/o the endless angle brackets that remove the need to write in coherent sentences. Blogs feel like the kind of democracy we had that lead to the American Revolution when the world was re-shaped with big ideas, written by great authors.

But does the world need yet another blog engine? Personally, while it’s primitive, I find that FrontPage have served me well as a blogging tool. The mental overhead is small, the development is nil and I get red squiggles. It falls down sometimes, but I’ve spent far less time maintaining the infrastructure for my content than I would if I were to build my own blogging engine.

On the other hand, while I don’t feel the need for another blogging engine in the world, I definitely see value in what those guys are doing. Specifically, they’re building apps, which is not something that XML guys are traditionally into. In fact, I’m scratching my head trying to think of another kind of XML-based technology that isn’t infrastructure-based and I’m not coming up with one (even InfoPath is a dev-tool). Is RSS really the first mainstream use of XML that hasn’t nothing to do with technology for it’s own sake? Are blogs the killer app for XML? I know web services were supposed to fill that role, but while they do solve a real problem, they’re not for consumers. My aunt in FLA couldn’t make use of a web service. However, she could definitely subscribe to an RSS feed and read up on the local news, her job and her hobbies.

Of course, the beauty of having infrastructure guys building apps is that they get to put into practice what they preach. When stuff is a pain (like every single XML API ever invented and most XML vocabularies), they feel the pain. The difference between us and them is that instead of just wrapping a layer of abstraction around the ugly stuff like we have to, they can actually fix it. I started this piece wanting to shake those guys until they could tell me why they cared so much. How ironic that thinking through the issues in the very medium they’re digging into helped me figure out what they were up to. The blog engine work is but the vehicle. They’re riding the app train to enlightenment. They’re trying to understand how XML can be used to solve problems for real humans. How can I argue with that?