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How XML Has Changed Web Development

By Jill Worth

Around the turn of the last century (and millennium), XML was still a promising technology with a small niche and growing interest. About midway through the first decade of the new millennium (and century), it was really exploding in use, and needed no further justifications as a good idea. In fact, the question changed from, “Why use XML?” to “Why not?” pretty quickly. XML became the format of choice for such diverse fields as stock trading, graphic arts and Web development. Far more tools and protocols work with XML than do not, and knowing what XML is and does is now one more checkbox for the computer literate.

As usual with objects of hype and excitement, XML did not take over the world or make every competing standard obsolete, and did not burn out as a wannabe, either. It is the center of a still-growing niche. If you work with XML, you still may need some style sheet wizardry to convert docs to HTML for legacy browsers, but you will also be using DTDs (Document Type Definitions) and so-called schemas for validating documents. There is a variety of XML applications ranging from math and vector graphics to genealogy, and you can use XML for programs, projects and every kind of Web site imaginable.

How to use it

There are many books and training programs that teach XML from a software developer’s perspective, but it has had its greatest impact in Web development from people who use it to author Web pages. You may wish to learn the ins and outs of BNF grammars or parsing element trees, and are free to do so. However, there are plenty of ways to learn how to use XML efficiently and productively to make attractive, easy-to-use, simple-to-maintain Web sites that will keep your visitors returning for more.

As opposed to creating with raw HTML, you can use XML in conjunction with style sheets and a few other (often free) tools and accomplish things that previously needed custom software costing hundreds or thousands of dollars per developer (or encyclopedic knowledge of programming, like Perl and other languages). Because others did a lot of the heavy lifting for you, much of the software recommended by the XML gurus costs just a couple minutes of downloading for hours of saved time. None of the many templates and tricks distributed by the XML boosters requires any programming at all, either.

What do you need to know?

The fact is, we all stand on shoulders of our technological ancestors, and we don’t have to prove how much of a nerd or geek we are by doing silly grunt work or performing manually what can be done with scripts and automation. After all, XML built on the foundation of HTML and the infrastructure of the Internet, so that anyone who knows how to use e-mail, do ftp commands or type URLs into a browser has a solid foundation for moving forward with XML. With the advent of XML and other HTML advances (CSS, SPAN tags, DIV tags), some new learning was in order, but most Web folks had the basic foundation already so that explanations of these new developments was done in context and seemed evolutionary, not revolutionary.

If you are able to write a basic page in HTML (links, images, text) and place it on a server, then you are ready to start learning XML. You do not have to stop at any intermediary point, like SGML, since XML was designed to be simpler and more widely distributed and supported. If you had to learn something else before XML, that would not be quite true, would it? Neither do you have to be a programmer, of Perl, Java, C or any other language. XML is a markup language, anyway, not a programming language. You absolutely do not need to be a programmer in order to write XML documents.

So, what changed?

Web development changed with XML because more commands became more available to more people. That’s about the size of it. Fortunately for XML (and us), it does not have a steep learning curve by any means, like HTML (and very much unlike SGML). As you learn more and more XML, you can do more and more, and right away. When you learn a lot, of course, then you can do a lot more. Your educational investment (time and energy far more than money, for the most part) will pay off in a bigger way with XML than with just about anything else, as it underlies and helps you make sense of a whole new generation of tools and techniques.

When you see how XML has changed the creative (and operational) environment, the first thing you should notice is ease of use, simplicity and validation. Here is a quick review of how XML has changed Web development:

- XML documents, with features that challenge HTML, are easier to create and deliver to readers.

- Semantic tagging means XML documents are easier to develop and maintain than HTML equivalents.

- It is simpler to confirm that your XML is well formed and validated against DTDs and schemas.

- You can build large, complex documents from smaller, simpler parts using entities and XInclude.

- You can describe data with attributes, embed non-XML data in documents and use pre-existing CSS and XSL style sheets.

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Article Citation
MLA Style Citation:
Worth, Jill "How XML Has Changed Web Development." How XML Has Changed Web Development. 27 Jun. 2010. 3 Aug 2014 <>.

APA Style Citation:
Worth, J (2010, June 27). How XML Has Changed Web Development. Retrieved August 3, 2014, from

Chicago Style Citation:
Worth, Jill "How XML Has Changed Web Development"

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