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Tim Strehle’s links and thoughts on Web apps, managing software development and Digital Asset Management, since 2002.
2004-11-22

Adam Bosworth's ISCOC04 Talk

Adam Bosworth - ISCOC04 Talk:

"That software which is flexible, simple, sloppy, tolerant, and altogether forgiving of human foibles and weaknesses turns out to be actually the most steel cored, able to survive and grow while that software which is demanding, abstract, rich but systematized, turns out to collapse in on itself in a slow and grim implosion.

[...] What is more, in one of the unintended ironies of software history, HTML was intended to be used as a way to provide a truly malleable plastic layout language which never would be bound by 2 dimensional limitations, ironic because hordes of CSS fanatics have been trying to bind it with straight jackets ever since, bad mouthing tables and generations of tools have been layering pixel precise 2 dimensional layout on top of it. And yet, ask any gifted web author, like Jon Udell, and they will tell you that they often use it in the lazy sloppy intuitive human way that it was designed to work. They just pour in content. In 1996 I was at some of the initial XML meetings. The participants' anger at HTML for "corrupting" content with layout was intense. Some of the initial backers of XML were frustrated SGML folks who wanted a better cleaner world in which data was pristinely separated from presentation. In short, they disliked one of the great success stories of software history, one that succeeded because of its limitations, not despite them. I very much doubt that an HTML that had initially shipped as a clean layered set of content (XML, Layout rules - XSLT, and Formatting- CSS) would have had anything like the explosive uptake.

Now as it turns out I backed XML back in 1996, but as it turns out, I backed it for exactly the opposite reason. I wanted a flexible relaxed sloppy human way to share data between programs and compared to the RPC's and DCOM's and IIOP's of that day, XML was an incredibly flexible plastic easy going medium. It still is. And because it is, not despite it, it has rapidly become the most widely used way to exchange data between programs in the world. And slowly, but surely, we have seen the other older systems, collapse, crumple, and descend towards irrelevance.

Consider programming itself. There is an unacknowledged war that goes on every day in the world of programming. It is a war between the humans and the computer scientists. It is a war between those who want simple, sloppy, flexible, human ways to write code and those who want clean, crisp, clear, correct ways to write code. It is the war between PHP and C /Java. It used to be the war between C and dBase. Programmers at the level of those who attend Columbia University, programmers at the level of those who have made it through the gauntlet that is Google recruiting, programmers at the level of this audience are all people who love precise tools, abstraction, serried ranks of orderly propositions, and deduction. But most people writing code are more like my son. Code is just a hammer they use to do the job. PHP is an ideal language for them. It is easy. It is productive. It is flexible. Associative arrays are the backbone of this language and, like XML, is therefore flexible and self describing. They can easily write code which dynamically adapts to the information passed in and easily produces XML or HTML.

[...] I remember listening many years ago to someone saying contemptuously that HTML would never succeed because it was so primitive. It succeeded, of course, precisely because it was so primitive. Today, I listen to the same people at the same companies say that XML over HTTP can never succeed because it is so primitive. Only with SOAP and SCHEMA and so on can it succeed. But the real magic in XML is that it is self-describing. The RDF guys never got this because they were looking for something that has never been delivered, namely universal truth."

Mon, 22 Nov 2004 13:56:47 +0000