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Does XML Have a Future on the Web?

A more interesting question is 'Is XML on the web trending up or trending down?'

Douglas Crockford's Blog

I was invited to speak at XML 2007 last month. I was given the topic "Does XML have a future on the web?" My answer was "yes." As evidence, I offered that there are still people selling Cobol compilers. Once this stuff gets into the enterprise, it can take generations to get rid of it.

A more interesting question is "Is XML on the web trending up or trending down?" Clearly, it is trending down. For data transfer applications, XML is losing ground to JSON because JSON is simply a better data transfer format. And XHTML has failed to displace HTML in the marketplace. The benefit of clientside validation has proven to not be a benefit.

I think you can argue, and in fact I did argue, that because of W3C's adventures with XML, the web itself may not have a future. The browser has a lot of problems, the worst of which are the security problems that came with Netscape Navigator 2. That was 12 years ago, and there has been no progress since that time in fixing the fundamental problems. There have been lots of patches on top of patches. Nothing more.

The web has grown up from a document delivery system to an application delivery system. But the browser has not kept pace, so there are now new proprietary platforms from Adobe and Microsoft and others that are hoping to replace the web.

Michael Sperberg-McQueen was there, and has described my argument as a truly mystifying rhetorical move. Michael and I were on the same panel, at which he wished he had said

It gives me some regret now that I did not interrupt at this moment to point out that XHTML and XForms are precisely an effort (all in all, a pretty good one) to improve the foundations of the Web, but I wasn't quick enough to think of that then.

XHTML is not the solution to a problem that concerns anybody except the guys who have to write parsers that convert markup into DOM trees. It turns out that XHTML put the validation on the wrong end of the network. It turned out that the market didn't put much value in a document delivery system that could decide to not display the document because there was an unrecognized attribute on an invisible meta tag. This same sort of wrong-end-of-the-network thinking can be seen today in the HTML 5 working group's crazy XHR access control language.

Continued...

More Stories By Douglas Crockford

Douglas Crockford, an architect at Yahoo!, is an AJAXWorld regular. A technologist of parts, he has developed office automation systems, done research in games and music at Atari, and been both Director of Technology at Lucasfilm and Director of New Media at Paramount. He was the founder and CEO of Electric Communities/Communities.com and the founder and CTO of State Software, where he discovered JSON. He is interested in Blissymbolics, a graphical, symbolic language, and is developing a secure programming language.

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Most Recent Comments
Kurt Cagle 01/10/08 04:39:59 AM EST

Douglas,

I noticed the other day that Ruby had crested about August 2006 in terms of the number of citations it was receiving in the press, and has been declining at a rate of roughly 2-3% per month ever since. Given that Ruby is perhaps one of the largest single producer/consumer networks of JSON, it may be worth spending some time looking seriously at whether in fact the arguments you are making are not in fact as applicable to that environment.

Most syndication that I see on the web is XML based, though since its usually called RSS2 or Atom people tend to discount how pervasive that is; the entire SOA stack is XML based, and I'd estimate that something like 65%-80% of all web development currently involves XML at some point in the production pipeline, if not necessarily the point connecting the server to the browser. While there is a fairly significant amount of JSON being flung around in the web 2.0 space, I find that neither JSON transformations nor JSON schemas have really managed to gain much traction.

Is JSON better than XForms? That's an apples and oranges argument. I am willing to predict that XForms + XQuery will become a powerful enterprise model for rich form content, because the enterprise is considerably more XML-centric than the consumer stack is. I'm willing to predict that JSON feeds to most mashups will likely end up being a mix of XML (primarily via feeds) and JSON for quite some time, though I'm inclined to suspect that AtomPub will likely tilt the balance of power towards XML in the long run.

One final note - I suspect that if you look at rate of growth, both JSON and XML are on sigmoid curves, with XML perhaps about 75% of the way along its trajectory, while JSON's probably about 50% of the way along its. Both will continue to rise in usage for quite some time, but both will also reach a plateau point, rather than one replacing te other. Big variables yet to be answered is to what degree is JSON catching on in the mobile space (by most accounts, mobile developers prefer declarative markup), to what extent will mashups continue to rise (my sense is that they are in fact stabilizing or even beginning to fall as the market becomes saturated there, while syndication feeds become the dominant services architecture), and whether a lightweight XML format such as e4x or LINQ gets adopted by other platforms (which I suspect will likely be the case with an ES4 adoption, which you're also opposed to).

JSON's not going to go away, nor should it - there are actually quite a few niches where it is in fact preferable to working with XML. However, I also think that its a little early to predicting the demise of XML on the web ... especially since I see some of the most interesting XML technologies really JUST beginning to come online now.

-- Kurt

Anonymous 01/09/08 10:06:03 PM EST

it seems to me that the author doesn't understand the full context in which XML is invented in the first place (the inflection point of enterprise architecture that is data centric instead of object centric)... choosing a format like JSON just seems like a step backwards..

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