XML in 10 Points

XML is for structuring data

Structured data includes things like spreadsheets, address books, configuration parameters, financial transactions, and technical drawings. XML is a set of rules (you may also think of them as guidelines or conventions) for designing text formats that let you structure your data. XML is not a programming language, and you don’t have to be a programmer to use it or learn it. XML makes it easy for a computer to generate data, read data, and ensure that the data structure is unambiguous. XML avoids common pitfalls in language design: it is extensible, platform-independent, and it supports internationalization and localization. XML is fully Unicode-compliant.

XML looks a bit like HTML

Like HTML, XML makes use of tags (words bracketed by ‘<‘ and ‘>‘) and attributes (of the form name="value"). While HTML specifies what each tag and attribute means, and often how the text between them will look in a browser, XML uses the tags only to delimit pieces of data, and leaves the interpretation of the data completely to the application that reads it. In other words, if you see <p> in an XML file, do not assume it is a paragraph. Depending on the context, it may be a price, a parameter, a person, a p…(and who says it has to be a word with a “p”?).

XML is text, but isn’t meant to be read

Programs that produce spreadsheets, address books, and other structured data often store that data on disk, using either a binary or text format. One advantage of a text format is that it allows people, if necessary, to look at the data without the program that produced it; in a pinch, you can read a text format with your favorite text editor. Text formats also allow developers to more easily debug applications. Like HTML, XML files are text files that people shouldn’t have to read, but may when the need arises. Less like HTML, the rules for XML files are strict. A forgotten tag, or an attribute without quotes makes an XML file unusable, while in HTML such practice is tolerated and is often explicitly allowed. The official XML specification forbids applications from trying to second-guess the creator of a broken XML file; if the file is broken, an application has to stop right there and report an error.

XML is verbose by design

Since XML is a text format and it uses tags to delimit the data, XML files are nearly always larger than comparable binary formats. That was a conscious decision by the designers of XML. The advantages of a text format are evident (see point 3), and the disadvantages can usually be compensated at a different level. Disk space is less expensive than it used to be, and compression programs like zip and gzip can compress files very well and very fast. In addition, communication protocols such as modem protocols and HTTP/1.1, the core protocol of the Web, can compress data on the fly, saving bandwidth as effectively as a binary format.

XML is a family of technologies

XML 1.0 is the specification that defines what “tags” and “attributes” are. Beyond XML 1.0, “the XML family” is a growing set of modules that offer useful services to accomplish important and frequently demanded tasks. Xlink describes a standard way to add hyperlinks to an XML file. XPointer and XFragments are syntaxes in development for pointing to parts of an XML document. An XPointer is a bit like a URL, but instead of pointing to documents on the Web, it points to pieces of data inside an XML file. CSS, the style sheet language, is applicable to XML as it is to HTML. XSL is the advanced language for expressing style sheets. It is based on XSLT, a transformation language used for rearranging, adding and deleting tags and attributes. The DOM is a standard set of function calls for manipulating XML (and HTML) files from a programming language. XML Schemas 1 and 2 help developers to precisely define the structures of their own XML-based formats. There are several more modules and tools available or under development. Keep an eye on W3C’s technical reports page.

XML is new, but not that new

Development of XML started in 1996 and has been a W3C Recommendation since February 1998, which may make you suspect that this is rather immature technology. In fact, the technology isn’t very new. Before XML there was SGML, developed in the early ’80s, an ISO standard since 1986, and widely used for large documentation projects. The development of HTML started in 1990. The designers of XML simply took the best parts of SGML, guided by the experience with HTML, and produced something that is no less powerful than SGML, and vastly more regular and simple to use. Some evolutions, however, are hard to distinguish from revolutions…And it must be said that while SGML is mostly used for technical documentation and much less for other kinds of data, with XML it is exactly the opposite.


There is an important XML application that is a document format: W3C’s XHTML, the successor to HTML. XHTML has many of the same elements as HTML. The syntax has been changed slightly to conform to the rules of XML. A document that is “XML-based” inherits the syntax from XML and restricts it in certain ways (e.g, XHTML allows <p>, but not <r>); it also adds meaning to that syntax (XHTML says that <p> stands for “paragraph”, and not for “price”, “person”, or anything else).

XML is modular

XML allows you to define a new document format by combining and reusing other formats. Since two formats developed independently may have elements or attributes with the same name, care must be taken when combining those formats (does <p> mean “paragraph” from this format or “person” from that one?). To eliminate name confusion when combining formats, XML provides a namespace mechanism. XSL and RDF are good examples of XML-based formats that use namespaces. XML Schema is designed to mirror this support for modularity at the level of defining XML document structures, by making it easy to combine two schemas to produce a third which covers a merged document structure.

XML is the basis for RDF and the Semantic Web

W3C’s Resource Description Framework (RDF) is an XML text format that supports resource description and metadata applications, such as music playlists, photo collections, and bibliographies. For example, RDF might let you identify people in a Web photo album using information from a personal contact list; then your mail client could automatically start a message to those people stating that their photos are on the Web. Just as HTML integrated documents, menu systems, and forms applications to launch the original Web, RDF integrates applications and agents into one Semantic Web. Just like people need to have agreement on the meanings of the words they employ in their communication, computers need mechanisms for agreeing on the meanings of terms in order to communicate effectively. Formal descriptions of terms in a certain area (shopping or manufacturing, for example) are called ontologies and are a necessary part of the Semantic Web. RDF, ontologies, and the representation of meaning so that computers can help people do work are all topics of the Semantic Web Activity.

XML is licensefree, platformindependent and wellsupported

By choosing XML as the basis for a project, you gain access to a large and growing community of tools (one of which may already do what you need!) and engineers experienced in the technology. Opting for XML is a bit like choosing SQL for databases: you still have to build your own database and your own programs and procedures that manipulate it, and there are many tools available and many people who can help you. And since XML is license-free, you can build your own software around it without paying anybody anything. The large and growing support means that you are also not tied to a single vendor. XML isn’t always the best solution, but it is always worth considering.