Jon (j_b) wrote,

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Nerd stuff...

If technobabble makes your eyes glaze over, please scroll on to another entry on your friends page.

XHTML 2.0: standards nerds get their own back

Once upon a time there were some aerospace engineers. They had to write big and complicated manuals for The Man's cool supersonic death machines. There were lots of them at lots of contracting firms, and they needed a standard way to exchange documents, because the Man was sad when He had to rifle through a huge stack of random technical documents to figure out why his planes periodically decided to fly upside down when they weren't supposed to. So the aerospace engineers formed a committee to come up with a new, standard way of describing structured documents. The result was a fine product of a committee that they named SGML. It was all standard and general and implementing it only gave the developers of document editors evil migraine headaches every once in a while.

A little after that some technical manual folks who had a big boner for Lisp decided they needed a way to describe what all these fancy death-machine manuals would look like when they were printed. They talked to the committee, which produced a style language named DSSSL. It was another fine product of a committee, although perhaps the words "style language" should have alerted people that the document editor developers were going to start reaching for the Xanax and the Zantac, because gin wasn't killing the pain anymore.

Later, a physicist in Switzerland (who knew SGML, maybe because physicists are sort of but not really like aerospace engineers) needed a document format for this new collaboration system he was putting together called the World Wide Web, because life is boring in Switzerland and all the cool stuff was happening in Illinois. He used some SGML stuff to come up with a simple little document format called HTML. It was simple and friendly and pretty good for a first draft, and since he said, "No, sir, I don't like it!" to DSSSL (which kept changing, as these standards are wont to do) it was sort of an odd mixture of a structural and presentation language.

The folks in Illinois thought this World Wide Web thing was pretty cool, and started putting together some tools to display HTML. A bright boy there noticed that it was hard to display garish pictures of his aquarium with the new language because there was no really easy way to embed pictures in these new HTML documents. For this and other reasons he and some of his friends ended up tweaking HTML a little bit to make it easier to control presentation from inside itself. He ended up making one skillion dollars later, but if it makes you feel any better, he ended up losing a big chunk of it, even though he's still richer than you probably ever will be. Aquariums are important.

The story gets kind of confusing and tedious here. A bunch of big companies started shoving HTML one way and then another, largely in an effort to make life miserable for all the other companies shoving HTML around. Nobody seemed to notice much that this made all the people who actually wrote HTML miserable, but they didn't really care, either, because anybody who would hold still for long enough would be handed a big pot full of gold. Or at least that was the story.

Meanwhile, some people decided that SGML was old and boring. Also, it was complicated. So they came up with a new and much more standard and general way to write documents, but they'd already called the first one Standard General Markup Language. Extreme sports were all the rage, so they called the new markup language XML. A new bunch of developers reached for the Pepto-Bismol, only to realize that nobody really had any idea what they were going to do with this XML thing. "It's an API!" said some. "It's a protocol!" said others. "It's a universal information exchange format!" said some. "It's a narrative-centric document format!" said still others. "Hey, look, guys, we ripped the guts out of it, binary-encoded it, and stuck it in a cell phone!" said one last group, who were dragged off into a dark place and never heard from again.

Finally HTML had been shoved around long enough that everyone had gotten tired of abusing it. Also, all of the vendors except for one were broke. But then they noticed that HTML was defined in old, boring SGML. "Bo-ring!" they said, and reworked it into Xtreme HTML, which was even more general and standard and extreme than HTML. They were back in the business of shoving it around, but this time, they were whacking big chunks off it instead of adding stuff in, which for some reason struck them as more fun.

Then, one day, they noticed that some bright spark had shoved all this stuff for displaying aquariums and blinking bold horizontal rule tables into their beloved standard and general language. "This won't do!" they exclaimed. "You cannot mix semantics and presentation!" And so they took out all the bold aquarium blinking stuff, and suddenly the last three people who had actually been interested in using the language stopped caring and took up sewing.

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