Section 15.8. Using XML

Our address example is trivial. It hardly scratches the surface of the wide range of applications that XML is suited for. To whet your appetite, here are some common uses for XML that you will certainly be seeing now and in the future.

15.8.1 Creating Your Own Markup Language

We touched on this earlier when we mentioned that the latest versions of HTML are being reformulated as compliant XML DTDs. We cover the impact XML has on HTML in the next chapter.

But even more significantly, XML enables communities of users to create languages that best capture their unique data and ideas. Mathematicians, chemists, musicians, and professionals from hundreds of other disciplines can create special tags that represent unique concepts in a standardized way. Even if no browser exists that can accurately render these tags in a displayable form, the ability to capture and standardize information is tremendously important for future extraction and interpretation of these ideas.

For more mainstream XML applications with established audiences, it is easy to envision custom browsers being created to appropriately display the information. Smaller applications or markets may have more of a challenge creating markup languages that enjoy such wide acceptance. Creating the custom display tool for a markup language is difficult; delivering that tool for multiple platforms is expensive. As we've noted, some of these display concerns can be mitigated by appropriate use of style sheets. Luckily, XML's capabilities extend beyond document display.

15.8.2 Document Exchange

Because XML grew out of the tremendous success of HTML, many people think of XML as yet another document-display tool. In fact, the real power of XML lies not in the document-display arena, but in the world of data capture and exchange.

Despite the billions of computers deployed worldwide, sharing data is as tedious and error-prone as ever. Competing applications do not operate from common document-storage formats, so sending a single document to a number of recipients is fraught with peril. Even when vendors attempt to create an interchange format, it still tends to be proprietary and often is viewed as a competitive advantage for participating vendors. There is little incentive for vendors to release application code for the purpose of creating easy document-exchange tools.

XML avoids these problems. It is platform-neutral, generic, and can perform almost any data-capture task. It is equally available to all vendors and can easily be integrated into most applications. The stabilization of the XML standard and the increasing availability of XML authoring and parsing tools is making it easier to create XML markup languages for document capture and exchange.

Most importantly, document exchange rarely requires document presentation, thus eliminating "display difficulties" from the equation. Often, an existing application uses XML to include data from another source and then uses its own internal display capabilities to present the data to the end user. The cost of adding XML-based data exchange to existing applications is relatively small.

15.8.3 Connecting Systems

A level below applications, there is also a need for systems to exchange data. As business-to-business communication increases, this need grows even faster. In the past, this meant that someone had to design a protocol to encode and exchange the data. With XML, exchanging data is as easy as defining a DTD and integrating the parser into your existing applications.

The data sets exchanged can be quite small. Imagine shopping for a new PC on the Web. If you could capture your system requirements as a small document using an XML DTD, you could send that specification to a hundred different vendors to quote you a system. If you extend that model to include almost anything you can shop for ? from cars to hot tubs ? XML provides an elegant base layer of communication among cooperating vendors on the Internet.

Almost any data that is captured and stored can more easily be shared using XML. For many systems, the XML DTDs may define a data-transfer protocol and nothing more. The data may never actually be stored using the XML-defined markup; it may exist in an XML-compatible form only long enough to pass on the wire between two systems.

One increasingly popular use of XML is Web Services, which make it possible for diverse applications to discover each other and exchange data seamlessly over the Internet, regardless of their programming language or architecture. For more information on Web Services, consult Web Services Essentials by Ethan Cerami (O'Reilly).

In conjunction with XML-based data exchange, the Extensible Stylesheet Language, or XSL, is increasingly being used to describe the appearance and definition of the data represented by these XML DTDs. Much like CSS and its ability to transform HTML documents, XSL supports the creation of style sheets for any XML DTD. CSS can be used with XML documents as well, but it is not as programmatically rich as XSL. While CSS stops with style sheets, XSL is a style language. XSL certainly addresses the need for data display, and it also provides rich tools that allow data represented with one DTD to be transformed into another DTD in a controlled and deterministic fashion. A complete discussion of XSL is beyond the scope of this book; consult XSLT by Doug Tidwell (O'Reilly) for complete details.

The potential for XML goes well beyond that of traditional markup and presentation tools. What we now see and use in the XML world is only scratching the surface of the potential for this technology.

15.8.4 Standardizing HTML

Last, but certainly not least, XML is being used to define a standard version of HTML known as XHTML. XHTML retains almost all of the features of HTML 4.01, but it also introduces a number of minor (and a few not-so-minor) differences. The next chapter compares and contrasts XHTML and HTML, mapping out the differences so that you can begin creating documents that comply with both the HTML and XHTML standards.