Life, Death and XML
February 18, 2013
It might just be the effects of a particularly cold February day but for whatever reason I have found myself thinking about the question "Has XML failed Publishing?" That same question sparked my last post which tracked an admittedly quixotic path of inquiry into "Why Content Technologies are Hard to Implement". And this question has stirred up a number of distant, and hopefully germane, memories. And these memories have tended to cluster around a very specific figure in the history of markup languages and content technologies - someone who we would do well to reaquaint ourselves with more often than we do.
As will become clear, there are a number of good reasons why the question "Has XML failed Publishing?" should summon up the memory of Yuri Rubinsky (1952-1996). This post will explore some of these reasons.
The first memory of Yuri to come to mind when pondering whether or not XML has failed publishing is a recollection of a presentation that Yuri gave sometime in the very early 1990s (I am guessing 1992). In this presentation, Yuri held up a book that had been published more or less simultaneously from SGML into commercial quality print, braille output, and a voice synthesized version. His message was clear. We should be able to publish content resources in all the ways that people may need or wish to access them. This was firstly a moral obligation as he could not abide the idea that anyone should be cut off from the wellsprings of culture. It was also a commercial imperative as he could see the growing need for publishers to address all possible distribution channels if they were to be viable going forward. It was evident to everyone present that Yuri felt that he was blazing the trail into the future of publishing. And indeed he was. It was also evident that in Yuri we had a potent advocate for the beneficial role that open markup standards could play in the world of publishing.
To return to, and to more of less dispense with, the question "Has XML failed Publishing?", this recollection of Yuri reminds us that the logic behind XML has been available and compelling from well before the time when XML was first proposed as a W3C Recommendation in 1996. The fact is that outside specialized segments of the publishing industry that were focused on providing high-value information services (and where SGML and then XML were being greedily exploited) much of the publishing industry has, until very recently, been wholly uninterested in either the moral obligation or the commercial imperative that Yuri was so eloquently championing. The less charitable way to frame this is to say that XML did not fail publishing but rather that publishing, as an industry and as a practice, has largely failed to capitalize on the capabilities that XML makes possible - capabilities to which many people, Yuri foremost among them, have dedicated much of their professional lives to see realized.
In turning the question of "Has XML failed Publishing?" around and rephrasing it as "Has Publishing failed XML?", I definitely run the risk of over simplifying things. OK, it does over simplify things. It is not really a question of apportioning blame. It should really be an inquiry into the root causes behind the slow adoption of XML within commercial publishing and the even slower realization of compelling benefits for those that have adopted XML.
Going back to Yuri Rubinsky, what I recall is that it was Yuri who was the most impassioned advocate for bringing markup intelligence to the web, back in the days when the web was brand new. While it may sound like a bold claim, and it is one that I am happy to defend, I have routinely called Yuri the Spiritual Father of XML – the champion for intelligent content on the web who was the most thoughtful in balancing the competing demands that were, at the time, contending over what would later be called XML. And among the instigators working at the time, he was the one person who most effectively extolled the need for XML to retain and to bolster features from SGML that were specifically designed to support and empower publishers.
As some readers will already know, the story of Yuri Rubinsky ends abruptly in early 1996 when he passed away to the shock of everyone in the industry. Besides being a loss that many of us still feel acutely to this day, Yuri’s passing left a massive hole in the community that was forging what would become the Extensible Markup Language (XML). The hole that was left was a place for a potent advocate for the needs of publishers. And without this advocate, the evolution of XML was overwhelmingly dominated by other demands and its positioning as a tool for publishing content was incontrovertibly set back.
As I have chronicled in my whitepaper "The Emergence of Intelligent Content", the story is not an entirely bleak one. Leveraging the story of St. Jerome, who I invoke as the patron saint of content management, I position the first decade in the life of XML as "XML in the Wilderness". By this I mean that the overwhelming dominance by technology considerations in the framing and application of XML during this period (addressing for example the pressing need for lightweight inter-application messaging protocols, aka web services) in fact delivered to publishers, and content stakeholders in general, a raft of tools with which to re-approach key challenges. All this is to say that there were a number of good historical reasons why XML adoption and application has lagged in the commercial publishing industry. Perhaps the key reason here is that XML genuinely did become a complex and changing suite of technologies, and publishers could be forgiven for finding the landscape more than a little overwhelming. But returning to the positive side, I would also stress that the range and quality of the XML tools and techniques that have resulted, and that are now available, is far superior to what has been available in the past. And this means that it has become genuinely possible for publishers to realize Yuri's original vision of efficiently and effectively delivering content to everyone who needs it. And as one of the fruits of XML's sojourn in the technology desert has been the unleashing of a wave of new eBook technologies, publishers are being pushed by innovations made possible by XML to finally adopt and apply XML in their own defense. There is a poetic justice to all this. Recalling Yuri's irrepressible good spirits, we can say that Yuri has, in the end, had the last laugh.
In casting Yuri in this role as the champion of publishing requirements to the forces forming XML or as the champion of XML to publishers of all shapes and sizes, I am not, as I sometimes do, overreaching myself. Yuri was, after all, an author and a publisher. He wrote, and co-wrote, a number of books including (with Murray Maloney) SGML on the Web: Small Steps beyond HTML which is still worth consulting. He edited Charles Goldfarb's monumental, and still indispensible, SGML Handbook (aka "The Bible"). He was also instrumental in launching the Banff Publishing Workshop at the Banff Centre for the Arts and he collaborated with Toronto's innovative Coach House Books in experimenting with new content technologies within the publishing workflow. So he really did know the business of publishing from all sides. And this means that he could, and did, speak with authority about the needs of publishers and could likewise speak with them in terms they understood. Just in case it needs to be repeated, his untimely departure meant that a vital link between the worlds of XML and publishing was severed in a way that would take a long time to heal.
"But wait, there's more!"
This is a line repeated numerous times in the must-see video called "SGML: The Movie" (1990) that Yuri co-authored and produced. There is indeed more to this story.
We should, for example, pause to recall a little more about Yuri, the evangelist of open standards and intelligent content. We have seen some of this already but there is really more that we should touch upon. Many people associate Yuri with the drive towards accessibility standards on the web - a drive that the W3C and others (including governments), to their collective credit, have continued to push forward with. As we saw with his early demonstration of the potential offered by true single-source, multi-channel publishing, he was an impassioned champion of accessibility from the very beginning and in ways that actually extend beyond the reach of the web alone. He was also an early advocate for increased precision and standardization in how metadata was applied to online information resources. He could see, prophetically, that with the rapid growth on online resources manageability and findability would quickly become serious, even debilitating, challenges. Accordingly, he was a founding contributor to what came to be known as the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative. We should probably mention in passing that it was Yuri who conceived of, and pushed for, the formation of an industry consortium, SGML Open, that would coordinate interoperability standards for content technologies and that would advocate for the larger goals of the industry as a whole. SGML Open continues today as the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS). If you think I could use the word "protean" to describe Yuri, you would be right.
There was another event that is worth recalling because it showcases Yuri in his role as an evangelist of open standards who spoke for, and to, the publishing sector. The event was a Seybold Publishing conference (I think it was in 1995 although there is a chance it was in 1994) where Yuri provided one of the keynote addresses (via telephone link). In his talk, Yuri introduced a "Manifesto of Information Users' Rights". It is a fascinating list and I provide it below.
We all have certain inalienable and interconnected rights which are entirely compatible with companies' rights to provide value and build businesses. In this manifesto, there are seven rights which all users, all people, have:
- We have the right to a standard machine independent encoding of all information and entertainment content.
- We have the right to use the display software of our choice and to adjust it to our own special needs - to hear information if we can't see and see information if we can't hear.
- We have the right to choose information providers and to know our technology will understand their content.
- We have the right to choose providers of delivery services and know that we can recognize any content that comes at us.
- We have the right to the intelligent encoding of all content in order to allow the broadest exploitation of our information assets.
- We have the right to pay for quality information and services.
- We have the right to continue to choose paths of entertainment and information experiences.
One of the things that is interesting about this Manifesto of Information Users' Rights was the confusion it seemed to cause, somewhat after the fact. A few years after Yuri's passing, some of the people working to keep his memory alive presented an abbreviated version of this list. It had been abbreviated down to the first five items only. When I queried these people about the omission, they confessed that they found the last two items confusing. They wondered if the transcript of the keynote address contained errors. So they sent a copy of the transcript for me to review. Interestingly, I found nothing at all that could be construed as unclear. What was interesting was that the confusion was not rooted in Yuri's words so much as in the viewpoint from which he framed those words and the difference in viewpoints between Yuri and the people trying to interpret them.
This is where we meet another side to Yuri. He was, among these many other things, a businessman and unashamedly so. We see this side to him when he is setting the stage for his bill of information users' rights and making the point that everything he was stating was compatible with the "rights of companies to provide value and build businesses". This is where the confusion began for some of the people trying to interpret the bill of rights. These people had opted to drop the last two rights from the list because they did not understand, or did not feel comfortable with, the overt references being made to the role of businesses, and the marketplace, in facilitating user choice. For Yuri the businessman, business was not the enemy. Rather business could be a key engine of innovation that helped people to satisfy requirements and even to explore new needs. For a number of people working earnestly within the markup standards community, this viewpoint was alien to say the least. For some in fact, business was indeed the enemy of openness and equality online and elsewhere. For these people, open markup standards were primarily a weapon to be used against business interests and not as a tool, as Yuri envisioned, for bringing the needs and goals of businesses and users together.
The reason why it made some sense to ask me to review the transcript of the keynote in which Yuri introduced his bill of information users' rights was that my dealings with Yuri had typically turned on addressing business opportunities. This is perhaps why the viewpoint behind the bill of rights, and the overt role it accorded to businesses in facilitating choice, seemed perfectly natural and coherent to me. A few short examples will suffice.
In the very early 1990s, in an attempt to drive the ideas around open, standards-based information into the mainstream discussion of government operations, I had concocted a business framework called FUSION (or Focused Use of Standards for Integrating Organizations and Networks). Whereas the effort earned me no small amount of derision within many quarters of the SGML community, Yuri picked up the theme enthusiastically and opened an ongoing collaboration that sought to frame what we, as a community, were talking about in ways that we could use to engage business executives and high-level government mandarins. And he understood implicitly that among the most important areas where integration could be improved was in how businesses supported each other with digital information flows. To Yuri, open standards were as essential for businesses as they were for users.
A couple of years further along, and I found myself in a military boardroom with Yuri. It was very late at night and we were preparing a presentation and demo for the following day when the we would engage the highest levels of the key NATO defense departments and ministries. It turned out that we spent an embarrassingly large amount of the time troubleshooting our demo. Somehow, in tinkering with the rendition stylesheets, we had managed to set the default text color to lime green. We were suddenly reacquainted with just how complicated a demonstration environment we had managed to put together. In due course, we sorted everything out and we were able, on the next day, to engage the assembled officials with a potent series of arguments on why certain initiatives deserved funding and support. In retrospect, I can say that our efforts were highly successful. Whatever contributions I might have made, I still see that success as flowing from Yuri's compelling vision of open standards bringing suppliers, customers, authors and users together in a way that was integrated, efficient and effective.
These vignettes underscore something important about Yuri that I believe explains, at least in part, why his all-too-early death had the impact it did on how open markup standards, and with that today meaning XML primarily, has made such slow progress in gaining acceptance within the mainstream business community including by publishers.
In the years that have elapsed since Yuri's passing, the advocacy for XML and for its effective application to the needs of publishers and their customers has split into two quite different camps. On one side, we have the markup language specialists who have continued to apply commendable energy to advancing the forefront of content technologies. On the other side, we have content practitioners (typically professional communicators) who have emerged from the user domain within different industry sectors, including publishing. Both sides have provided a number of reasonably visible and articulate champions. On the XML technology side, what we don't see is a strong understanding of, or appreciation for, the business challenges to be overcome. On the content practitioner side, what we don't see is much in the way of implementation experience that exhibits any scale or technical depth. And owing to the limited perspective of each camp, few from either side are really equipped to enter the executive boardroom to make the case for the business changes that open content standards and technologies make uniquely possible. The issue, basically, is that no one has really stepped in to play the unique role that Yuri played. And Yuri's unique role flowed from his ability to see how many different standards, tools and capabilities could be brought together, and integrated into a coherent whole, to produce something quite new and undeniably powerful. It goes almost without saying that filling Yuri's shoes is a rather tall order.
In taking a measure of Yuri's overall contribution, which I have been arguing is even greater than is already acknowledged, we do see a source of hope. Just as XML has emerged from the wilderness to deliver a bevy of technology resources that we can use to solve many of the historical stumbling blocks to modernizing publishing processes, user experiences and information flows, so the last 15 years have produced a much expanded community of advocates on both the content technology and content practitioner sides. So whereas it may be all but impossible for any one of us to fill Yuri's shoes, we can together cover off his unique role which we can now understand precisely because he modelled it so completely and so compellingly.
I will close out this rather long investigation with a historical reference to Charles Pigeon. Sometimes I cannot myself account for my sometimes extreme leaps across history. But this connection comes to mind because, like Yuri, Charles Pigeon was a businessman and innovator. In the late 19th century, he invented, patented and put into commercial production a safely portable gas lamp. Although I am doubtless being selective here, he stands out as an example of someone who demonstrates how a business innovator can bring something into the world that is sorely needed and from which many people will benefit. It is in this light that I choose to remember Yuri and I see his ability to integrate innovations together in productive ways as the model that should guide our industry now that so many of the pieces are ready for deployment. His example and model helps to explain why our industry has faced challenges in his absence. And his example and model now stands as sign post, and a call to action, for those of us that follow in his footsteps.
Epilogue. In September 1999, I was chairing XML World and I opened the event with a recollection of comments that Yuri had made not long before he passed away. His words were all the more poignant because he had passed so soon after saying them. The words were also amplified by the fact that I myself was, at the time, shouldering an impossible range of challenges and responsibilities. The words I recalled was a question that Yuri had posed, at the time hypothetically. It was a question that had been occasioned by the severe health challenges being faced by one of his employees. He asked whether, if faced by the prospect of impending death, he would change the focus of his life. His answer was unequivocal. No, he would not change his focus away from the business, and calling, of open markup standards. This work, he pronounced, was important and rewarding and therefore worthy of our last exertions. I will admit that the clarity of his vision supplied one of the beacons that I used to chart my own course through adversity. Showcasing Yuri's unique gift for distilling what was salient and memorable, he offered us all a very simple code with which to guide our lives:
Do the right thing, have fun, make money - in that order.
Better words have rarely been spoken.
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