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XML spec moves ahead despite gripes

The World Wide Web Consortium advances XML 1.1 amid complaints that it is breaking the specification's backwards-compatibility in order to benefit IBM.

The Web's leading standards body this week advanced its seminal XML specification amid complaints that it was breaking XML's backwards-compatibility in order to benefit IBM.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) this week released XML 1.1 as a candidate recommendation, the penultimate phase in the consortium's recommendation process.

XML, or Extensible Markup Language, is a widely adopted syntax for creating documents that are more easily read by computers. It's become central to a new software development trend called Web services that's supported by IBM, Microsoft and many other software makers.

The revision of XML comes with a trio of changes to the specification's treatment of Unicode, an increasingly global standard for representing characters in computerized text.

Among the Unicode revisions is a change that will specifically benefit users of IBM's mainframe systems--and that has inspired complaints that IBM is exercising more than its fair share of influence on the XML working group.

"IBM mostly grew out of their anti-competitive monopolistic tendencies over the last thirty years (with a large dose of assistance from the U.S. government)," reads an editorial on the XML news site Cafe con Leche that has circulated within the W3C's own XML 1.1 discussion forum.

"However, there are still some legacy issues relating to their attempt to dictate standards to the rest of the industry, and this is one of them. Now rather than fixing their own broken mainframe text-editing software, they want everyone else on the planet to change their software so IBM doesn't have to," it said.

The notion that some members of the W3C are more equal than others is not new. Microsoft in particular has weathered criticism that it exercises disproportionate influence on the consortium's decisions, which are supposed to be made by consensus.

The debate over XML 1.1, formerly known as XML Blueberry, has raged on Internet discussion forums and within the W3C itself as opponents have risen either to condemn the proposal to change an international standard for the sake of one vendor, or to defend the move as a practical step forward for a technology that poses significant problems for IBM users.

The IBM-specific problem that XML 1.1 aims to fix has to do with a special character that designates to IBM mainframe systems the end of a line of text. XML 1.0 chokes on that character, but version 1.1 would recognize it.

While critics contend that XML 1.0 documents using that character will suffer if the version 1.1 changes are recommended, IBM counters that XML documents are capable of describing in their headers what kind of XML documents they are and that this capability should head off any backwards-compatibility problems.

IBM also dismissed the notion it was railroading the XML working group to serve its own ends.

"The suggestion that this is IBM flexing its muscle and forcing these changes through the W3C is not fair or accurate," said Steve Holbrook, program director for IBM's emerging e-business standards group. "This is a subset of (XML's) whole lack of good Unicode support...Clearly one that impacted us the most."

Holbrook said the line-break issue that has been foiling mainframe XML implementations was the result of IBM's having been left out of the original group that wrote the XML 1.0 specification. Despite early resistance from some XML working group members, he said, the group's ultimate consensus wound up supporting the revisions.

The W3C defended the changes to XML 1.1's Unicode support as crucial steps toward making XML a fully functional international technology.

"XML 1.1 (supports) the current version of Unicode, improving upon internationalization support," wrote W3C representative Janet Daly in an e-mail interview. "More than this, it has been rewritten to support all subsequent revisions of Unicode, so there won't be a need to re-write/reformulate each time there is a new update to Unicode. Cause for celebration, I would say--especially in places where the Western character set is not the native one."

One analyst said that although concerns about undue influence by individual vendors were valid, there was a legitimate reason to support the IBM-specific change.

"The truth is that there are a lot of IBM mainframe systems out there, and they're very important," said Ronald Schmelzer, an analyst with ZapThink. "The truth is that this is not really for IBM's benefit, it's for IBM's customers' benefit. And I think that's fair. An international standard shouldn't change for the benefit of a company's future project, but it's clear that end-of-line characters are not a strategic business strategy for IBM."

The W3C is soliciting comments on XML 1.1 through mid-February.

In other W3C news, the consortium updated the draft, and issued a second public working draft of its Voice Browser Call Control, Call Control eXtensible Markup Language (CCXML), version 1.0. The W3C is soliciting comments on both technologies.