10.1 Limitations

Like any good technology, XML does not try to be the solution to every problem. There are some things it just cannot do well, and it would be foolish to try to force it to do them. The foremost requirement of XML is that it be universally accessible, a lowest common denominator for applications. This necessarily throws out many optimizations that are necessary in some situations.

Let's review some of these limitations:

  • XML is not optimized for access speed. XML documents are meant to be completely loaded, and then used as a data source. The parser is required to do a syntax check every time it reads in the markup. In contrast, modern databases are optimized for quick data lookups and updates.

  • XML is not compact. There is no official scheme for compressing XML. XML parsers expect uncompressed text. You either have to put up with large text files, or you have to create a complex mechanism for compressing and decompressing on the fly, which will add to your processing overhead. Most proprietary applications, like Microsoft Word and Adobe FrameMaker, save data in a binary format by default, saving disk space and perhaps speeding up file transfers. (HTTP offers compression for transmission, which helps reduce this cost.)

  • Many kinds of data are not suited for embedded markup. XML is most useful for text data with a hierarchical structure. It does not offer much for binary data. For example, raster graphic images are long streams of binary data, unreadable to anyone until passed through a graphic viewing program. This binary data may contain dangerous characters that would need to be escaped. Binary data is optimized for size and speed of loading, two qualities that would be hindered by XML.

  • XML may raise expectations too high. Quite often, software vendors tout XML support as a great new feature in their product, only to disappoint users with poor implementation. For example, the early version of Adobe FrameMaker's XML export capability was nearly unusable, as much of the data was structured badly, was missing information, changed figure filenames, and so on. Instead of viewing it as a magic bullet, developers should approach XML as a framework in which intelligent design focusing on the quality of markup structures can achieve magnificent results.