November 30, 2004

Tech (non-)Savvy?

This morning as I was pulling into Starbucks for my pre-work latte, listening to The Beat on Seattle's KUOW (an NPR station), the topic of web security, Internet Explorer and Firefox came up. Beyond the moderator (Steve Schoerr, I believe) there were three other panelists - a web security consultant, a writer for the Seattle Times, and an analyst from Jupiter research.

The discussion was, for the most part, non-technical; at the level of defining what a virus or worm was and why they were so problematic, the kind of discussion you'd expect in a radio forum with a wide, but not necessarily technically savvy listenership. Even given that, I think there were several points to be taken from the show beyond what was mentioned directly.

Security is Killing Microsoft. Almost from the outset, these people worked upon the assumption that Microsoft's products are fundamentally insecure, and these insecurities are likely to force you to frequently reformat your hard drives, lose critical information on your computers, or have your credit card information stolen. Long-time readers know that I'm not generally a big Microsoft proponent, but the kind of public trashing that Microsoft received may very well do more to erode their market share than any hundred bad eWeek articles about the company. The idea that Microsoft is fundamentally insecure (which I don't agree with - properly managed, Microsoft is not really any less secure than properly managed Linux distributions) has now become established folk wisdom. This is devastating for Redmond, and if anything it necessitates that they not only start putting some serious PR dollars into stopping that hemorraging of public trust but that they also seriously re-examine what their role vis-a-vis the Internet should be.

Firefox as Browser. If the radio show hurt Microsoft, it served as an hour long infomercial on the benefits of not only Firefox but Mozilla and Open Source in general, and I have no doubt that there was probably an extraordinarily high concentration of downloads coming from the Puget Sound after that. Firefox has momentum, in a way that I've not really seen any technology in the last five years have momentum, and most people who try Firefox are not going back to Internet Explorer. I argued in my previous post that while its still too early for enterprises to be developing applications around it, there is enough solidity within the platform that enterprise developers and IT managers are beginning to examine it for fast tracking into less mission critical areas.

Tech (non-)Savvy. Working at the fore-front of the Internet revolution, it is often easy to forget that most people out there know how to use the technology but have little to no clue about exactly how the technology operates. Most of the callers were of the "my computer has lately become slower than it was, is there a virus at work?" variety, though it was rather heartening to hear that many of these same people did make the switch to Firefox and found immediate improvements, though whether this is due to anything more than switching from one already full cache (and tens of thousands of ghostly temp files that will now likely never be removed from their computers) to an empty cache.

This attitude of technology as (unstated) magic is worrisome because it underlies to me how easily it is to slip into an attitude where you assume that the computer is doing valid and legitimate things at all times (or, on the other hand, that there is some evil force of terrorists out there that are determined to turn their machines into some kind of mindless zombies [aren't they already?]). I'd like to teach people to think of their computers as being an organism within a complex ecosystem, and like most such organisms attracts viruses both benign and malicious (benign viruses being programs) that provide useful benefits with no adverse side effects, a category which can become remarkably slippery if you look at it too closely. However, the fear is that this particular metaphor only reinforces the notion that computers are self-contained (and self-aware) entities. I'm increasingly convinced that in today's culture, computer training should be a staple in elementary, secondary and collegiate education.

Whither SVG? Thither!!

The blogosphere has become, for me, an awful temptation, as there are any number of articles that get posted that I so want to refute. Perhaps one of the most recent came from a writer for whom I actually have a great deal of respect ... InfoWeek commentator Jon Udell. His article entitled Whatever Happened to SVG? has set the various SVG lists buzzing, as it questioned whether SVG had dissappeared off the face of the planet, one of those articles that makes you really despair about the state of things.

His contentions, that SVG was supposed to be the technology that would change the world and then failed to do any such thing is accurate as far as it goes. In 2000, SVG was wracked with contention because there was such strong disagreement between the principals, especially Microsoft, Macromedia and Adobe, that the SVG 1.2 specification lists neither company among the working group members. Patent issues surfaced the next year which caused the W3C to debate the viability of the Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory (RAND) patent which would have let companies charge royalties for the use of standards, which came to a head in August and September of 2001 with the W3C response servers being overloaded with thousands of comments from the web community including most of the major luminaries in the field, saying almost universally that RANDs were a bad way to go. This process in turn made all W3C standard patents Royalty Free only (though this is an area where second attempts are being made to push RAND back into the organization).

Since then SVG has been subject to other challenges ... it is an incredibly complex specification to implement, and to date there have been only a few successful implementations, most notably that produced by Adobe, though the last year has seen the emergence of nearly complete SVG 1.0/1.1 viewers by companies in the wireless space, SVG static editors, and a couple of nearly complete SVG dynamic editors. A year ago at this time, few applications exported to or imported from SVG, now Microsoft (Visio), Macromedia (Flash), Adobe (illustrator) and Corel (Draw) all have SVG as either an input or output vector, and in some cases both, and most vector editors (open source and proprietary) provide SVG as an alternative format (and in some cases as the primary format).

This last point may seem trivial, but in practice it's anything but. SVG differs from nearly all other graphical drawing formats out there in several key ways - it has an XML structure that can be readily parsed and has a verfiable schema, it can reference other distributed graphic and metadata content, it is non-proprietary and as such does not run the risk of another GIF debacle, it can work on any platform that supports an SVG viewer and it can maintain external namespaces within its body. Even before you get into the scripting features of SVG, these points are enough to make it an attractive vehicle for complex documents over the web.

SVG has been "almost there" for a while, and its easy enough after a bit to begin to think that SVG will never take off. I'll be the first person to say that I don't think it will take off either ... if, by take-off, you imply explosive, rocket-like growth. Rather, it is creeping in on little cat feet (to paraphrase Carl Sandburg), showing up in places that you'd never expect to find it. Graps showing disease vectors or population shifts, icons in an operating system, drop-down boxes on a web page, a block of text in a pre-press application. SVG doesn't have a multi-million dollar marketing budget, and the Rolling Stones won't be there to play when it's used as part of an operating system. It doesn't run ads on TV, doesn't take out multi-page spreads pointing out where it is in the supply chain.

In short, I fully anticipate that SVG will end up being the VW Beetle of the graphics/multimedia world -- a little comical perhaps, not taken all that seriously, certainly not for the class conscious (at least in its 1960s incarnation), but ultimately both ubiquitous and easy enough that a grade-school student can create simple graphics with it without needing to know anything about programming beyond a few simple rules, and without needing to buy expensive editing or animation programs. Okay, SVG'll also have an air-cooled engine (you need to know exactly how far you can extend a metaphor... ;-)

It seems to me that HTML went through this stage in 1994, when the pundits who caught the wave early enough were already beginning to write articles about how HTML was beginning to be old hat, and would be dead soon enough in the face of pressure from languages such as Visual Basic (and later Java). Java on the desktop is now seen as the bad joke, Visual Basic, while still widely used, is itself now rapidly going the way of the dodo ... helped by the less than spectacular adoption of Visual Basic.NET. Meanwhile HTML is still being written by hand by those grade schoolers. Will SVG take the same arc? I'm counting on it.

November 28, 2004

Firefox: Why Microsoft Should Be Worried

I inadvertantly posted this earlier while it was still under development. Sorry for the confusion.

Firefox turned 1.0 last week, and in the process managed to hit 1,000,000 downloads in one day. Put that into perspective - Firefox is in the neighborhood of 5 MB, which means that the servers had something in the neighborhood of 5 terabytes of data streaming over their pipes. From a pure networking standpoint, that's pretty amazing, not to mention the indication about how major a release Firefox has become.

A few Netcraft statistics are perhaps just as revealing. Netcraft measures browser usage on the web, and according to its data, Firefox has managed to capture about 4% of the browser share just since October when the 1. 0 preliminary review was released. Given that the movement of any given browser usually tends to be in the neighborhoods of tenths of points from month to month, this jump was phenomenal. Firefox and Mozilla combined now occupy roughly 7% of the browser market, most of it at the expense of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. IE dropped below 90% or the market for the first time in several years.

I've seen a number of articles on the web asking whether Microsoft should be worried about the rise of Firefox, especially given their own market-share of around 90%. After all, ASP.NET is increasingly putting the orientation of web pages regardless of which server the browser is aimed at, a server-centric philosophy that seems to be consistent with the stance that the company took after moving from a rich client model in the late 1990s.

Personally, I would contend that Microsoft does need to worry ... a great deal. Internet Explorer is more than just a browser ... it is a critical piece of infrastructure that is used in any number of applications, including applications that don't necessarily talk to the web. The ability to create dynamic interfaces is not something to take lightly, as such systems are far easier to update, more readily customizable than precompiled binaries, and are often simpler to write applications around, for the vast majority of all such applications. Given that a significant proportion of such applications are written not for the home user but for the enterprise, Internet Explorer may in fact anchor Windows in businesses even more than Microsoft Office.

Given that, Firefox represents a significant threat to Microsoft. I have been working with Firefox and XUL for roughly three months now, building a number of tools for a content management system including a customized WYSIWYG XML editor and a versioning system monitor. With some work, I've managed to make these tools work across Windows, the Macintosh and Linux, using a combination of Mozilla's XUL, Javascript, and XSLT. The editor, as one example, overrides the Firefox menu, making it possible for me to actually piggyback on top of a user's version of Firefox to get the functionality that I need.

I am writing this blog using the editor I built on the Firefox XUL library and API, with the editor actually running as a tabbed pane within the browser itself. While it is certainly possible (and I'll discuss in more detail how it can be done) to set up such core functions as cut, copy and paste, text searching, undo and redo, and so forth through Javascript code, by building on top of the web browser itself I was able to effectively get all of this for free, leaving me with more time to implement functionality specific to the company's requirements. Perhaps the closest analogy I can think of as to the power of this would be as if you had access to the source code for Internet Explorer, could make changes to the interface using XML and Javascript, and could then run it on any platform without complex recompilation. The XAML model comes closest, but XAML is also still at least two years out, and it's unlikely that you'll actually get a chance to manipulate (or even see) the source code for the XAML rendering engine.

Yet for all this, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Firefox is its ability to integrate multiple extensions. It's worth considering that most of Firefox is in fact an extension of some sort - some extensions are just bundled more tightly with the original package. Third party extensions exist to do everything from translate or speak selected text to showing the weather for the next few days. Some, such as the Web Developer's Toolkit, can actually work very nicely with an editor to show the dimensions and paths of images, boundaries of tables and divs, and activating and deactivating Javascript and Java components on the fly. These extensions can in fact be utilized in conjunction with your own applications as well -- I use a number of them with the editing suite I've developed, again letting me concentrate on the relevant business logic on my end rather than trying to reimplement everything from scratch. This capability will also increase considerably by mid-next year, when SVG and XForms are integrated into the mix - making it possible to generate rich, intelligent forms and interactive multimedia using SVG, XBL bindings and data-aware form components.

The Anatomy of Mozilla

I've been rather blithely throwing around terms and acronyms here that may be familiar to the XUL developers among you but may otherwise be somewhat mysterious to the rest of you. Consequently, digging into the innards of Mozilla may both end up explaining some of this and giving you a better understanding of what exactly applications such as Firefox can do.

Conceptually, Mozilla (and by extension Firefox and Thunderbird) can be broken down two ways: Gecko and SeaMonkey. Gecko is a set of core objects, written primarily in C++, that handle the detailed rendering and memory management of web-based applications. Gecko is perhaps the oldest part of the Mozilla project, started from scratch to better perform the drawing of web pages than the older Netscape browsers did. You can thank Gecko for Firefox's surprisingly fast speed in rendering. Gecko serves as the interface between tbe application and the native graphical rendering system (such as GDI on Windows or XFree86 on Linux and Unix based systems), freeing up developers from having to explicitly access this layer directly.

Gecko, however, is a largely invisible layer from the application developer standpoint. If you're writing an application, you are much more likely to be interfacing with it through SeaMonkey (you can probably begin to detect the direction of the Mozilla Foundation's code name strategy at work here). SeaMonkey provides the code interface layer that makes it possible for us ordinary mortals to write applications, and even to take over the Mozilla browser in order to create our own. SeaMonkey exposes an XML language called the XML User-interface Language (or XUL) that provides a set of building blocks that control various components - textboxes, formatting boxes, status bars, menus, lists, trees, and so forth, along with abstractions for creating key bindings, event observers and referential commands. This set is fairly rich (there are more than one hundred such tags), but it can also be extended with the HTML element set (useful for creating formatted markup within applications) and will further be augmented with the SVG tag-set by March 2005, and XForms by early 2006.

It is possible to put together applications with nothing but XUL, but they are generally trivial applications at best. As with any other application framework, the structural elements usually need to be bound together with some code of procedural code. SeaMonkey borrowed a page from Internet Explorer here (as well as .NET) - rather than building one language inextricably into the interface, SeaMonkey breaks the process up into two distinct technologies - XPCOM and XPConnect. XPCOM performs the same role for Mozilla that COM does for pre-.NET windows applications - it queries and binds object interfaces and makes them available for other coding applications to utilize. This cuts down on the requirement of maintaining a static-API, and provides a vehicle for writing binary extensions as XPCOM objects. While the two layers are not identical, there is enough similarity between XPCOM and COM that an ActiveX container for Mozilla should soon be supported, making it possible for Firefox applications to run ActiveX controls while at the same time providing a layer of security that prevents them from being the threat they've become under Internet Explorer.

To get around coding a specific language to SeaMonkey, XPCOM is designed to be accessed through XPConnect, a binding layer that maps XPCOM to a specific language's interfaces. Currently the primary such language is Javascript 1.5, though plans are in the work to incorporate Javascript 2.0 once that language goes through its final development phase and is approved by the ECMA (a body, incidentally, that has quietly become the de facto holder in trust of programming languages in general). I've covered some of the features of Javascript 1.5 before, including the use of setters and getters, robust regular expression support, the use of constants, and multiple try-catch statement support. However, bindings for other languages, including Python and Perl, are available, and a much more complete Java binder is also under development. Because of the open nature of Mozilla, I would not be at all surprised to see a C# implementation in the near future as well.

The list of XPCOM objects is quite impressive. A partial list includes the following functionality:
  • Core Functionality (See below)
  • Accessibility Components
  • Address Book Support
  • Clipboard and Selection
  • Content and Layout Managers
  • Cookies
  • HTML and XML DOM Support
  • HTML Editors
  • File and Stream Interfaces
  • Graphics Creation and Manipulation
  • Interprocess Communication (IPC)
  • LDAP
  • Localization
  • Mail Support
  • Network Support (Sockets, et al)
  • News Support
  • Preferences Objects
  • Security
  • Web Browser control
  • Web Services (SOAP/WSDL based)
  • Window Management
  • XML Support (Schema, XSLT, XPath)
  • XUL
The Core functionality provides a number of useful data structures (including dictionaries, arrays, property bags and enumerations) and language type support,along with threading libraries (and pools), timers, event resources, and exception management. While some of these are not necessarily that useful in Javascript, they do have definite utility in other languages such as C++. The graphics library includes interfaces for actually drawing on surfaces within the various objects, though accessing these services can be a little convoluted. The mail, LDAP and news support point out a subtle but important fact about Firefox and Thunderbird - they are simply applications that both sit on the same API - meaning that you could in fact build integrated mail services directly into Firefox if you wanted to.

XPCOM exposes these services and objects via a contract ID, something analogous to the classid used by Microsoft tools. The following, for instance, illustrates how you could create a new local File object:
var file = Components.classes[";1"].

The first part of the expression,
creates a reference to the local file class defined by the contract ID, ";1". This is a class reference, not an instance reference (it points to a particular class definition, rather than one specific instance of the class). The createInstance() function in turn creates an instance of this object, using the Components.interfaces.nsILocalFile interface to expose that particular interface on the instance. A given object may conceivably have more than one interface; this code makes it easier (and more cost efficient in terms of computing) to get the specific interface properties. Once this object is retrieved, you can use its properties and methods in exactly the same manner you would do so in any other language.

The final piece of the SeaMonkey language is the XML Binding Language (or XBL). This XML-based language provides a transformation mechanism that will take user-defined tags written in XUL files and convert them into an internal XUL representation, complete with properties, methods, and event hooks. XBL provides a way of creating more sophisticated elements, and is in fact used within XUL itself for the definition of things such as tab-browsers, which combine tab boxes and browsers into a single component.

A very simple XBL file, one that builds a box with OK and Cancel buttons, might look something like this:

XUL (example.xul):

<?xml version="1.0"?>
<?xml-stylesheet href="chrome://global/skin/" type="text/css"?>
<?xml-stylesheet href="chrome://example/skin/example.css" type="text/css"?>

<box class="okcancelbuttons">

CSS (example.css):

box.okcancelbuttons {
-moz-binding: url('chrome://example/skin/example.xml#okcancel');

XBL (example.xml):

<?xml version="1.0"?>
<bindings xmlns=""
<binding id="okcancel">
<xul:button label="OK">
<xul:button label="Cancel">

The XUL file creates a reference to a CSS file, while in turn uses CSS selector and rule syntax for defining the bindings between a given class (okcancelbuttons) and an XBL file and the associated "okcancel" binding item. Real XBL can become much more complex than this, of course, but this is a topic for a different article.

As expected, SeaMonkey also handles the bindings between CSS and the XUL applications, with XUL heavily utilizing CSS not just for simple "styling" but for the actual creation of complex components through XBL. The CSS support that exists as a consequence is VERY impressive, including certain features that have been floating for a while, such as support for multiple flow columns.

The final piece of any XUL application is the use of overlays. An overlay is a XUL file that changes the XUL (and associated scripts) of a given application. By overwriting or extending (as a form of inheritance) you can do such things as create overlays on Firefox or Thunderbird itself. I do this myself to override the default load and save menu items and replace them with my own, making it possible for me to save to a custom XML schema and load from that schema later.

Firefox is an example of all of these principles in action, by the way. If you have Firefox running on your system (and maintain the Java SDK on your system), create a copy of the browser.jar file located in the chrome directory of your Firefox distribution somewhere outside of the firefox application folder. You can use the Jar file extractor from the SDK to convert this into a directory:

jar xvf browser.jar

This will create a folder called content, which in turn will hold the various XUL, XML, and CSS files for the Firefox browser. It is worth spending the time looking at these closely. One of the things you should realize pretty quickly on is that almost all of Firefox is contained within these XUL files, not in some form of C++ application, and that a significant portion of the coding for Firefox is handled by Javascript.

Firefox is remarkable to me in that it is one of a new breed of applications, built around an XML interface and scripting yet fully capable of handling some of the most serious challenges that any "formal" application written in C++ or even Java can handle. It is also eminently accessible, in a way that a lot of other applications aren't. It is this model, as much as any widgets or features of the Firefox application, that is the real story here.


I'm looking at the November 22, 2004 issue of eWeek on my desk at an article entitled Browser wars back on. I think that sums it up pretty well. Firefox is not just a shot across the bow to Microsoft -- stealing 5% of market share is much like taking out the yard-arm on your ship with that cannon-shot. A major portion of Microsoft's control over that market share has come from the fact that you could access other components from within it, turning the Internet Explorer shell into a general purpose shell for hosting any kind of application. No other browser out there has really managed to pull it off and still be able to maintain its quality as a browser.

Firefox opens up that possibility. It's not that much of a stretch to envision Open Office creating wrappers around their UNO wrapper class to make them work within Firefox, and as the editor application I've written myself illustrates, you can actually go a long way toward building commercially viable enterprise-level applications just using the core components from Firefox. The addition of SVG support and XForms provides another point of attack against both Power Point and InfoPath, and its not hard to envision data-access tools appearing in the next year (perhaps powered by XQuery?) that will give Access a run for its money. Such applications could run on multiple platforms with little or no modification, would be a menu-item away from normal browsing (and could easily run in one browser tab while you maintain your mail in a second tab and surf the web in a third).

None of this will happen overnight, of course, but its easy enough to see the general trendline. Already it is prompting Microsoft to come back with a number of new extensions and innovations on its own browser, though in most cases these extensions still rely upon the existing ActiveX architecture. The biggest danger that Microsoft faces from this comes in its tendency to pick and choose which standards it chooses to comply to; a truly standards compliant development system is likely to be far more politically attractive than one that is closed and proprietary, especially where it counts -- not in the big enterprise settings where the adoption of any new technology usually takes place only after such a technology has become very settled but in the spare bedrooms and coffeehouses and garage work-stations of the individual developers who are the ones who are learning (and in many cases developing) the technology of the future. For them, Firefox and the Mozilla Application Suite represents a huge step forward, one that will have reverberations for the next decade and beyond.

This was sent to me by a friend, and I thought it would help put into perspective just exactly how far we have come in fifty years. No word yet on the laptop model. Posted by Hello

November 18, 2004


Most of us, the people for whom the Metaphorical Web makes any sense whatsoever, are geeks. Not so long ago such a term was used with the greatest of derision, an open reference to carnival sideshow geeks - people who were bizarre or did bizarre things. I was a geek, the high school kid that would sit in the computer room (and former storage closet) writing programs on the Apple IIe there while everyone else was at lunch or chilling out during recess. I was the kid that would inevitably be picked at the tail end of whatever sports team match we were mandated to play, because everyone knew I had neither skill nor interest in team sports.

Somewhere along the line, being nerdy gained its fifteen minutes of fame, in large part because one of the most stereotypically nerdy people ever had also managed to become the wealthiest man in the world, and for a while, being the odd man out was in. Then the Technical Nuclear Winter hit, and the football team captains and the marketing types were once again in the driver's seat, laughing at how these stupid tech guys had been taken with stock options that were as empty as vaporware and SCO legal threats.

For the younger kids (and even for many of us who are beginning to see gray in our beards) the viciousness of this turnaround was stunning - going from being able to afford expensive houses to being considered one of the lucky ones if you had parents who could put you up in their spare bedroom proved a powerful blow to a lot of people, shaking them up and making them realize how truly random such wealth could be -- and how duplicitous other people could be, if they thought that they could use greed to control you.

I've been through this cycle a couple of times before - I entered into the programming marketplace in the mid-1980s, when career counselors were advising people not to go into computers, there was no future in it, and again in the multimedia bust of 1994, before the Internet really began to heat up. The tech field's like that ... sometimes you ride the big waves, and sometimes it's better just to take your board out of the water and spend the time waxing and repairing it, because the surf is about as flat as it can be.

Curiously enough, though, the real innovations that occur in the field don't occur when the economy is red-hot and the potential for making money is strongest - in fact that's usually the worst time. Your judgement becomes clouded because you're not asking the question "does this solve a real need?" but rather "can this make me rich?". No, the real breakthroughs come when you're sitting at home, chatting with friends via IRC (IM for you newbies) or email lists, playing with ideas or flaming away the dross, putting together something just to see if it can be done. There's a new toolkit I want to play with, there's an idea I saw that I think could work here as well, we need to figure out where the holes are in this specification, because they're causing real interoperability problems.

A surprising number of programmers are also musicians, though not necessarily world class ones. Part of the music/programming association, I suspect, has to do with the analytical nature of music, but a bigger part is that a musician is in his or her own way also a technician, someone who is interested less in the money than in making their tools do something really cool. The process of innovation has reminded me more than once of an extended jam session, continuous improvisation off a theme. Any musician knows that not all such jam sessions produce great music -- often what they produce is just noise, and the musicians just shake their heads and agree to meet again next week. Sometimes, though, everything clicks, everyone finds themselves in the groove, and before you know it the music ends in the wee hours of the morning with the participants exhausted but happy (and I"m deliberately avoiding another obvious metaphor here).

Lately I find that the meaningful work that I'm doing is not coming from the 9 to 5 grind, the thing that keeps the roof over my family's heads. It comes despite it, in the interstices, through the improvisational conversations that we all seem to be engaged in. There are some profound things shaping up in the software field right now ... things that have occurred not because a CEO somewhere had a grand initiative to add another billion dollars to the bottom line but because, in coffeehouses and pizza parlors and IRC chats and e-mails, people have been playing the music of innovation and inspiration, of trying to build something because it needs to be built, profit be damned.

The cycle is shifting yet again, the momentum building, the ideas exchanged at two in the morning at Starbuks going to make the next BIG THING. No doubt the former jocks and marketing types will begin to circle soon, sensing the potential for making money off these things that they did not create, were not a part of. I suspect they may discover that smart people can be fooled once, but that smart people by definition also learn very, very quickly. Yet I also pity these people, the ones that once reviled us by calling us geeks, for I suspect that deep down they have no music in their souls, that they will never know the real joy of creation.

No code today, though I promise some tasty morsels soon. Until then ... enjoy!

November 11, 2004

They're Movin' and Shakin' at the W3C


Thanks for the many responses I've had to my post yesterday concerning Canada - some very good thoughts and suggestions, including the primary things one needs to remember when in Canada:

"Moving to canada is no big deal, as long as you learn that re is better than er and eh is a verb, noun, and adjective all in one."

Thanks, Ronan.

The political statement out of the way, its time I got back to why I write this column in the first place ... GOSSIP! Er..., no, XML. Same difference.

The XML Bernie Botts

Watching the W3C at work is very much like shaking out Bertie Bott's Jelly Beans (the kind from Harry Potter that my 11 year old daughter so loves torturing her old father with). Sometimes the specs released by the W3C are very good - a vanilla or taffy flavored jelly bean that's surprisingly delicious. Sometimes the specs are more like "vomit" or "dirt", though with annotations.

The last couple of weeks I'd have to say there were a delightfully high number of blueberry delight and banana split and the worst to come out was still on the order of "grass" - edible, just not all that exciting. We're past the OWL specifications (there's another Harry Potter column coming on if you're not very careful) which quite frankly read like Noam Chomsky had just engaged in a serious argument with Richard Feynman. You had a drought where for a while all that was brewing were small specs like Accessibility, important in their own right but like listening to a lecture about going on dates from your spinster great aunt. Just when I was beginning to despair that the entire friggin' box was filled with "library paste" jelly beans, along came a bunch of very tasty treats indeed.

This was just picked up from the Recently Published Working Draft Section for the last two weeks. To quote my four year old daughter "This is AWESOME!"

Even more is hidden in the details here. For instance, I note that in the XSLT Serialization specification, there's not one editor but three: Michael Kay (Saxonica), Norman Walsh (Sun), Henry Zongaro (IBM). A lot of my job entails reading behind the lines and trying to understand the significance, but to me this is a pretty strong indication that both Sun and IBM are watching XSLT2 VERY carefully; you don't put a powerhouse hitter like Norman Walsh (the author of the DocBook specification) on a specification unless you think it'll be important.

That you'd need a specification just for the serialization aspect of XSLT2 may seem a little odd as well, until you understand that one of the key new features in that specification is the <result-document> element. This makes it possible for an XSLT2 document to generate more than one output. The most obvious uses of this capability is to use XSLT2 to generate secondary XML documents, but much like input and output streams this is just one of many areas. Generation of SOAP messages, creation of non-XML source code from XML documentation files (especially with many of the other new features in that specification), and rerouting of messages to databases all fall within the province of this new feature. Combine that with the elimination of the tree fragment such that intermediate XML can be created within a transformation and manipulated directly (no more node-set() function!), regular expression support, and the ability to import text, and XSLT2 is beginning to look pretty damn brawny.

Serialization gives you the ability to do things such as to set the content encoding of a document, making it much easier to handle Unicode UTF-16 encoding. The specification also introduces character mappings, which gives you a way of avoiding the need to incorporate DTDs within source code (or the transformations themselves) in order to define entities. While there are some features of DTDs which continue to be useful, XML is slowly losing its reliance upon them.

The XPath 2.0 specification is similarly an important document, and the news on this one was perhaps not quite as sweet as I'd hoped. XPath is a major specification because it underlies not only XSLT but XQuery, XForms, and SVG's xXBL may have some dependencies in its next draft (see below). The last specification was labelled Last Call, which means that it is usually considered one step before a Proposed Draft -- it is an opportunity to put the specification in front of people and get feedback. There was a LOT of feedback this time around, enough that after some consideration, XPath has been taken out of Last Call Status and is once again strictly a working draft.

The issues that have necessitated this are fairly broad, due in part to the need to more properly specify the character model (part of the serialization above) and in part to rectify some of the thornier issues with type conversions. Another common feeling (one that I personally agree with) is the huge number of date-time functions and the feeling that many of these are redundant or readily derivable, especially given the extension mechanisms that exist in both XQuery and XSLT. There are also some indication that one of the original goals of XPath 2 - providing data aware type objects, has receded considerably as people have thought more about what specifically the specification was intended to accomplish. Finally, collations, which affect string order, have been put on the table as things which need to be more clearly defined before the specification can be published.

Regardless, this means that most of the specifications involved will likely be in limbo for at least another six months because of this delay. The one positive aspect about this is the fact that the specifications are not likely to change considerably, so that so long as you stay clear of the more problematic functionality, you can actually use the beta XSLT2 processors that are beginning to surface with some reliability.

SVG 1.2 Goes Into Last Call

After the last paragraph, I'll be cautious about saying too much about this one, though because it is for me a little closer to home I've been watching this particular battle rage for the last couple of weeks. SVG 1.2 is, to put it bluntly, what SVG should have been four years ago:
  1. SVG1.2 defines a mechanism for dealing with wrapping text in paragraphs, and does so in a spectacular fashion by making it possible to flow text through irregular shapes, and from one shape to another.
  2. SVG1.2 defines video and audio tags for creating robust multimedia.
  3. SVG1.2 includes a binding mechanism called sXBL (SVG XML Binding Language) that makes it possible to use XML to build complex components.
  4. SVG1.2 includes an editable attribute to make it possible to change text on the fly.
  5. SVG1.2 incorporates a mechanism to create filter vector effects.
  6. SVG1.2 includes sockets and HTTP support for building distributed applications.
All in all, it puts together enough substance to make it into a serious graphics substrate layer, with the one lone difference between it and a language such as XAML being that it does not yet address 3D. Of course, given that the next version of SVG will be version 1."3", I'd say this isn't that big of a problem.

The SVG 1.1. specification was revisionary - it clarified a few features that were not completely specified in 1.0. SVG 1.2 on the other hand is meant more as an addendum, shuffling new chapters into the thing that we call SVG. It is also a very controversial specification, as SVG is now beginning to seriously encroach into other areas such as HTML and XSL-FO. This is not so much true in terms of the specifications - HTML is a logical description of a web page while SVG is a lower level graphics description language - but when you combine SVG with sXBL you have what amounts to a mechanism by which you can use SVG to render that HTML in a pretty fair representation of a web page. In this way what SVG serves to do is replace not so much the specifications, but at least SOME functionality of the browsers themselves.

X.Org Does SVG

This has some very interesting implications, especially in conjunction with what is happening in Linux. A year ago, the XFree86 organization, the group responsible for the X graphical system on Unix and later Linux, split on the basis of changes desired by certain members to make the license non-GPL compliant. The GPL faction formed a new organization,, and immediately set out to solve another problem with XFree86 - the glacially slow development pace of XFree. XFree86 is ancient technology - the first X implementation was created in 1984, twenty years ago, and although the framework was remarkably flexible there were several places in the underlying graphics model that were proving remarkably constrictive. used this break as a chance to rebuild much of the more troublesome aspects of X. While this effort is still ongoing, already there are a number of new features to X which are making developers salivate:
  • Moving from a 24 bit to a 32 bit color space - the RGBA space - to provide 8 bits (256 levels) of alpha channel support. This makes it possible to push transparency directly into the chips, whereas before transformation had to be done much higher up the stack at the application level, resulting in far poorer performance.
  • Establishing much finer invalid region support into the graphics layer itself, resulting in much faster screen refreshes - an absolute must for animation.
  • More tightly integrating the 2D and 3D engines used by unix based systems, a critical feature for the Java Glass window initiative (and X3D).
  • Creating more robust events that can be captured at the X layer, rather than needing to be placed up in the application stack.
  • Incorporating hooks for SVG integration (yeah!!).
One implication of this is that SVG is bidding to become the equivalent to GDI under Microsoft Windows - in a role with Linux that'll compete directly with the XAML graphical layer under .NET. As SVG 1.2 will likely be a full specification about the time that most of the new begins making its way into commercial applications, this implies the possibility that SVG 1.2 could become pervasive under Linux.

New Compound Document Formats Group Formed
One of the more intriguing ideas behind many of the presentation oriented specifications is the concept that you can embed SVG and MathML code within XHTML, possibly combining it with XForms content or other related specifications. Some browsers are already doing this, but when theory hits reality, inconsistencies between models can cause more headaches than expected.

In mid-October, the W3C announced the formation of the Compound Document Formats Working Group (CDF) specifically to provide ways to smooth that integration. The formation of this group sends a signal that the W3C is shifting from the development of base technologies specifications and to the interchange between the various specs, something which has needed to happen for a while. I suspect that interoperability will be the name of the game for the next couple of years, especially once the big specifications like XSLT2 and XPath2 finally go golden.

There has been a tendency in the past for specifications to occasionally develop potentially competing and certainly conflicting aspects with other specifications issued by the W3C, meaning that if you wished to use on technology you might potentially be locked out of using another, even though both are conformant with the W3C process. By getting this resolved, user agents of the future will be considerably more integrated with all of the W3C specifications, and the notion that all of these objects can effectively play within the same DOM-space is particularly exciting (your HTML controls the MathML, which in turn controls the SVG, populates the XForm data, and passes the results up to a pipe using the XML DOM).

I've been busy on other projects and am beginning to wrap those up, freeing up more time for Metaphorical Web columns - so expect the activity to pick up again here. Is there something that your company or organization is doing in the XML space that you think is worth shouting about? If there is, contact me at with the inside scoop. Until next time, enjoy!


November 10, 2004

Canada Bound?

The last couple of weeks have been a time of exhiliration and heartbreak, and have forced me to seriously examine what my feelings are about the US and my relationship to it. I've started this same blog four different times now, each time trying to frame what I wanted to say. In the interests of getting back to the task at hand - discussing the world of XML, it seems best to make only a statement on what has happened.

On November 2, 2004, the two party system in the United States effectively collapsed. One party, a party that it notoriously hostile to civil rights, remarkably ignorant about technology, inclined to view such technology principally as a means either to wage war or control the populace, now controls all of the political organs of our state - the executive branch, the legislative branch, the legal branch, the military and intelligence services, and an overwhelming majority of all governorships, and to a great extent the media.

This party is not the GOP - though they were the agents through which this takeover was affected. The people who wield the power within this organization are students of a particularly virulent brand of nationalism that was last adopted by the German National Socialists, the Nazis ... as they came to be known. It is a philosophy of empire, of hegemony, of conquest for the sake of power and control, a philosophy that has learned to cloak itself in Madison Avenue friendly soundbites and wrap itself in the mantles of the cross and the flag, but it is friendly neither to people strong in their faith nor strong in their patriotism.

I voted for Kerry, not because I found that his ideas would have radically improved things, but because the party that Bush represents is making things far worse. Many of you, no doubt, will disagree with me ... and I welcome such disagreements - that is the spirit of honest debate. However, there are many indications that such honest debate will become much rarer, as will the spirit of innovation which is so critical to this field, as we become a nation under surveillance, so fixated on the enemy without that we do not see the enemy within.

A democracy needs two things to survive: a system of checks and balances and free and fair elections. We no longer have the first - the people in power can make pronouncements and judgements without the threat of what would in the academic community be called peer review - the ability to provide a second set of eyes to determine whether a given law is really good or whether it simply represents the desires of the person who makes the law for personal gain or aggrandizement.

In programming circles, the equivalent concept is code review. The Open Source Software community understands the value of this - in many ways OSS is essentially code review write large. No company worth its salt should ever accept software that's passed directly from the developer to the company at large (or their customers/clients) without at least two more sets of eyes looking at it; companies that fail to do this will not stay in business for long. The analogy holds true in government as well.

Were the elections free and fair? I personally do not believe so -- there are simply too many abberations at all levels, some due to human intervention, some due to machines either badly or maliciously programmed, and an overwhelming number of them favor the Republican party. Again, in statistics, a sufficiently large number of random errors will be distributed along a Gaussian Bell curve, such that errors usually tend to cancel out, not heavily favor one candidate or another. This will not change who gets inaugurated in January, but it does bode ill for the faith that one can place in the election process, not just now, but for the foreseeable future. Given that this faith is the cornerstone of democracy, the belief that each person within the society has a vote of equal value to all other people in that society, to compromise it to this degree begs the question of whether the United States is in fact a democracy anymore.

Many people in IT tend to be libertarian, and are either passionate about politics or supremely indifferent about it -- there is no middle ground. Thus to talk about it in a programming forum is often considered to be in bad taste. However, to those who see no relationship between the two, consider that with this election, several things are now set in motion that will have an impact upon both IT managers and programmers:
  • Enforcement of such legislation as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act will be tied much more closely with federal agencies, with the strong potential to restrict the free flow of all information (throttling the Internet) in the name of chasing pirates.
  • A concerted effort will likely be made on the part of several corporations to declare the Gnu Public License (the GPL) invalid, possibly along either DMCA or anti-competitive means. Patent cases under this administration have been settled overwhelmingly in favor of the largest busines interest ... expect this trend to continue.
  • There is already something of a brain drain going on as academics and high end developers leave the country, fearful of what they see already coming down the road and frustrated as universities become simply extensions of corporations because federal funding is drying up. Additionally, as corporations in the US have become leaner and meaner, they have typically slashed or eliminated outright their key R&D centers, expecting that they can buy the innovation on the open market. I see this assumption as being facile and short-sighted.
  • There is an increasing reluctance on the part of world standards bodies to want to deal with American corporations in light of political and military actions of late. I've been to a number of standards conferences in the last year or so, some in the US, some outside of it, and find that there are fewer and fewer Americans drawn into them. The heighened military posture of the US has also meant that certain American companies, such as Microsoft, are increasingly being seen as proxies for American intervention, and are losing business in Europe, Asia, and South America because of it. I personally don't think this belief is necessarily valid, but there is definitely a backlash building against US products because of that perception, with software being a major part of that.
  • I'm keeping my focus here strictly on what I see as the most conservative impacts that the new administration will have solely upon the IT sector. I think there will be many bigger effects, including a fairly severe recession by mid-to-late 2005 which will also affect the industry (though not as badly as the 2000-2003 Nuclear Winter did), but there are too many unknowns to make such guesses with any certainty.
Those of you who are long time readers of Metaphorical Web may remember my rhapsody on themes Canadian after the 2003 SVG Open conference. While the decision is yet to be made, I am leaning strongly toward emigrating there, to get involved with what I see as the vibrant open standards scene in Vancouver. The city has become a magnet for XML technologies, drawn by such luminaries as Tim Bray, Philip Mansfield, Paul Prescod, Ron DeSerrano and many others. It's also becoming a hub for software entertainment, a field that to date has been only peripherally influenced by XML, but which is probably due to be the next frontier for that particular set of standards.

Moving one's family to a new country (even one only a few hours drive away) is always a momentous decision; moving because your own country is undergoing what could be a dark and dangerous transformation is heartbreaking, because you have to struggle with the question of whether staying would make a difference. It is a decision I am still weighing, and would gladly welcome comments from others on both sides of the divide.