SGML Update: consultancy, tools, courses'


16-17 May 1991

The Dutch SGML Users Group hosted a two day international conference in Amsterdam 16-17 May under the general title `SGML Update: consultancy, tools, courses'. This attracted over a hundred delegates, by no means all from the Benelux area, though mostly from European publishing and software houses. There were two keynote speakers (Sperling Martin for the AAP, and myself for the TEI), about a dozen presentations from manufacturers or consultants and a well-arranged software exhibit in which all the major SGML software vendors were represented, with the conspicuous exception of Software Exoterica who had apparently had to withdraw at the last minute. There was ample opportunity for discussion and argument between presentations, over an excellent buffet lunch and in the evenings.

Sperling Martin as one of the chief progenitors of the AAP standard was happy to report that it was now in use by more than 25 major publishers, with a further forty planning to adopt it over the next twelve months. He gave brief overviews of three particularly successful applications on the fringes of conventional publishing. Firstly, the Association for Computing Machinery, which has just developed a five year strategic plan with the AAP standard at the centre of several dozen new print products, on demand reprint facilities, optically stored databases, hypertext products etc. Perhaps more interestingly, the ACM plans to mandate the AAP standard as the interchange format of preference for its army of unpaid professional contributors, reviewers and referees in the future. Secondly, the Society of Automative Engineers, which is adapting the AAP standard for use in something called a `Global Mobility Technology Information Center' or in plainer English, a database of information about all sorts of transport systems. The interesting thing here was the convergence between SGML and object-oriented databases -- as well as manuals of technical information, SGML was being used as the vehicle for data to be transferred directly into CAD/CAM systems. Sperling's third AAP success story was a similarly hybrid development: a new legal database system developed for the Clark Boardman Company, providing integrated information services derived from legal journals, statutes and regulations, a body of case law together with interpretation and annotation, usable by traditional print journals or electronic hypertexts. Of course, the AAP project had not been an unmitigated success: it had begun at a time when SGML was barely established, and some aspects, notably those concerned with maths, formulae and tables have never been finished properly. Moreover, there are a few deliberate errors in the standard, introduced (said Sperling ingenuously) as `reader tests'. He also called attention to some image problems -- all too familiar to TEI ears -- such as the perceived conflict between TeX and SGML, or ODA and SGML, and the intimidating nature of SGML so long as its cause is left to the purists and the evangelists. Looking to the future, Martin predicted an increased awareness of SGML within the library community as a practical means of coping with the explosive growth of published materials, particularly in Science and Medicine. The AAP standard was to be assessed for suitability as a `non-proprietary information exchange vehicle' for electronically networked journals, by the 110-member Association of Research Libraries, under a scheme for which the National Science Foundation had recently provided $0.75m seed funding. His presentation concluded with some sound advice for those developing a strategic business plan in which SGML featured (concentrate on the business asset, don't expect technology to do everything, expect to spend at least $5 a page to get electronically tractable text...) and some predictions for future AAP work. A corrected version of the AAP standard would be re-submitted to ANSI and a summary of needed corrections to the published dtds would appear in EPSIG news at the end of this year.

Seamus McCague gave an impressively detailed description of two practical applications of SGML in work undertaken by his company, ICPC, a fifteen year old Dublin-based specialist typesetting company. One, for Elsevier, involved the production of about 100,000 pages of high quality camera-ready copy from SGML encoded text annually; the other, for Delmar, the conversion of an existing reference book into an electronic resource. Details of the two projects provided interesting contrasts in production methods; they also showed how the SGML solution was equally applicable to two very different scale operations. For Elsevier, the use of SGML greatly simplified both process and quality control, by facilitating the automatic extraction of data for the publisher's control database; for Delmar, it had made possible significant improvements to the product (a drug handbook) by automating the production of a variety of indexes.

Francois Chahuneau of AIS, the thinking man's Antoine de Caunes, gave a characteristically ebullient presentation about the relationship between SGML documents and database systems. He distinguished four characteristic modes of action: simple storage of documents in a database, where typically only a limited amount of header type information is visible to the database; database- driven document extraction, where documents are synthesized from information held in a database as a specialised form of report; tightly coupled systems in which highly volatile document and database systems share information; and the true document database in which all the information and structure of a document are represented by isomorphic database constructs, thus combining the well-understood strengths of database systems in such matters as concurrency control, security and resilience with the flexibility and multiple-indexing capabilities of document processing systems. As examples of this last mode, he then described in some detail two products: his own company's SGML- Search, which is based on PAT, and Electronic Book Technologies' Dynatext, and also demonstrated a beta-test version of the MS- Windows version of the latter. It uses an interesting scripting language based in part on DSSSL, which enables it to be configured to look more or less like anything, whereas SGML Search is command-line driven, using a fairly rebarbative syntax.

The interface between SGML and database systems was also touched on by Jan Grootenhuis of CIRCE, the doyen of Dutch SGML consultancies. Speaking of his experience in teaching SGML, he remarked that people with a typographic background found SGML almost as difficult to understand as people with a computer science background found the requirements of typography, which struck a familiar chord. He then briefly described a recent project in which documents had been converted automatically into an Oracle database, using a database model defined by Han Schouten. The project had shown that database definitions could be automatically generated from a DTD; the complete suite of Oracle manuals, created as Ventura or WordPerfect documents, had been loaded into an Oracle-Freetext database, using SGML as an intermediary. He noted that the tendency of technical writers to use descriptive tagging to bring about formatting effects had made this task unnecessarily difficult, and argued for better enforcement of descriptive standards. He also outlined some experiences in using SGML for CD-ROM publication of journals at Samson, and of legal and other regulations published by the Dutch government, and the updating problems involved. His conclusion was that SGML was now past the point of no return. It was no longer being used in pilot projects only, but as an integral part of real work. Its use was no longer regarded as worthy of comment; moreover, because its evangelists were too busy doing real work to try to publicise it, the task was being taken on by professional teachers and educators.

The first day of the conference concluded with manufacturers' presentations. Tim Toussaint(MID) and Paul Grosso (Arbortext) gave a joint presentation. Toussaint revealed that MID, formerly Dutch and now German, is now 26% French. They used Arbortext as an SGML editor, and Exoterica's XTRAN to convert it for loading into an unspecified relational database. Applications included standard reference works such as the Brockhaus Duden and a database of standards documentation. Grosso gave a good sales pitch for Arbortext, which is a luxuriously appointed SGML editor intended for use primarily in an electronic publishing environment and described as non-intimidating and user-congenial. It includes a specialised WYSYWG editor for tables and formulae from which AAP-conformant marked up text is generated, has good browsing and outlining facilities and its own script language.

Hugo Sleimer, European Sales Director for Verity (a spinoff from Advanced Decision Systems) gave a classy presentation of a product called TOPIC, the only relevance of which seemed to be that it supported a wide variety of document formats, including SGML. Much of his presentation dealt exhaustively with the problems of text retrieval by boolean logic, at a level which did not show much respect for his audience's intelligence. Tibor Tscheke, from Sturtz Electronic Publishing, was due to talk about his company's work in creating an electronic version of the Brockhaus Encyclopedia, but had unfortunately been forbidden to do so by Brockhaus. He was therefore reduced to some generalities about the role of information within an enterprise, the integration of SGML systems into mainstream information processing and so forth, which was a pity.

I opened the second day of the conference by summarising the current status of the TEI and discussing some of the technical problem areas we had so far identified, in particular those raised by historians and linguists for whom any tagging is an interpretation which must be defensible. This being the second time I had done it in two weeks, I managed to get through most of my material within a reasonable approximation to the time allocated me.

Yuri Rubinsky (SoftQuad Inc) gave an entertaining and wide- ranging talk, picking up in passing some of the technical issues I had raised rather than simply presenting a product review, though he did mention in passing (and also demonstrated) that Author/Editor was now available under Windows and Motif as well as for the MAC. The theme of his talk was that SGML could be used to describe more than just documents, and that several of its capabilities were under-used. There was more to an SGML document than its element structure. Among specific examples he mentioned were customised publication, for example by extracting `technical data packages' geared to a specific maintenance task from CALS- compliant documentation in the Navair database; using attribute values to generate documentation at different user levels from a common source; an ingenious use of entity references within `boiler plate text fragments' in General Motors manuals; and the assembly of customised DTDs from sets of DTD fragments by a use of parameter entities strikingly similar to that proposed by the TEI, or by use of marked sections. For the GM application, this approach had reportedly saved the cost of its implementation within six months.

Pamela Gennusa (Database Publishing Systems) also picked up the recurrent theme of this conference: that SGML was uniquely appropriate to database publishing. She gave a good description of the major issues in preparing text for publication in database format and the strengths of SGML as a means of making explicit the information content of texts in a neutral way, which was essential given that authors and consumers had different requirements of it and touching on the problems of security, high volume and time sensitivity which characterise database publishing as an industry. She also gave a good overview of the capabilities of the new version of Datalogics' set of SGML products, notably WriterStation, an impressive authoring tool with several new facilities and DMA (Document Management Architecture) a complex set of object-oriented tools providing database management facilities for SGML material which also includes full text searching facilities like those described earlier by Chahuneau.

Ruud Loth (IBM Netherlands) gave a workmanlike presentation of IBM's SGML product range, which now includes an context sensitive editor for OS/2 called TextWrite, a formatter for VM or MVS called BookMaster and a new range of products called Book Manager to deal with `softcopy books' (IBMese for `electronic texts'). Book manager Build runs under VM and MVS and generates `softcopy' from GML or SGML documents; BookManager Read runs additionally under DOS or OS/2 and has impressive facilities for hypertext- style browsing, intelligent text retrieval, indexing and annotation. IBM documentation (47,000 titles, 9 milliard pages) would soon be available in this new form.

Bruce Wolman of Texcel AS then gave a detailed product description of the Avalanche `FastTag' automatic tagging system which, it is claimed, can handle almost any kind of text and automatically insert usable markup into it. The product has two components, a `visual recognition engine' which searches for visually distinct entities in a document, as defined by a set of rules encoded in a language confusingly called Inspec, and another language, called Louise, which defines the form in which these objects should be encoded. Things like tables, footnotes, horizontal lines, running headers or footers or special control sequences could all be automatically tagged as well as objects defined by regular expressions or specific keywords in the text. The product had just been launched in Europe and was available for MSDOS, VMS, Ultrix and Macintosh.

John Mackenzie Owen of the Dutch consultancy Pandata gave a brief description of the SGML handling capabilities of BasisPlus, stressing however its strengths as a document management system rather than its admittedly limited SGML features. Bev Nichols of Shafstall described the Shafstall-6000, an all-singing all- dancing document conversion system based on a package called CopyMaster which included SGML among its 800,000 claimed `document-to-document' pairings but which (I had the impression) would really rather be operating on a proprietary format called the Shaffstall Document Standard. The last presentation of the day was from Ian Pirie of Yard Software Systems who described the successful Protos project carried out by Sema Group and Pandata for the CEC. The project handled proposals for funding from DG 13 which had to be distributed to member states for comment and the ensuing comments. MarkIt had been used to validate the format of the messages passed in either direction, its regular expression facilities being particularly useful in automatically encoding the content of telex messages, and its application language to encode the messages for storage in a Basis database. The whole operation had been carried out with minimal disruption of the message system.

Aside from the presentations, the conference provided an excellent opportunity to catch up on the expanding world of SGML- aware software. Among products demonstrated were new versions of MarkIt and WriteIt from Sema Group, of Author/Editor from Softquad, Arbortext, Writerstation from Datalogics and an interesting new product, an SGML editor called EASE from a Dutch company called E2S. Delegates were also given a copy of the first fruits from the European Work group on SGML, a consortium of European publishers which has been working on a set of AAP- inspired dtds for scientific journals which took the form of a very well designed and produced booklet documenting a DTD for scientific article headers. I came away from the conference reassured that SGML was alive and well and living somewhere in Europe.

Lou Burnard

Text Encoding Initiative

A postscript to the above

My report on last month's Amsterdam SGML UserGroup conference, recently posted on TEI-L and on comp.text.sgml was, like most such reports, written with timeliness and liveliness as primary objectives, rather than considered sober opinion. Consequently, it contains some phrases which I would certainly not wish to stand as matters of official published record, and also a few inaccuracies that I'd like to correct. I've recently received a letter from Sperling Martin drawing attention to some of these, most of which is quoted below. This is partly a way of expressing gratitude to Sperling for having taken the time to correct my misrepresentations so thoroughly and with such good humour. His reply also provides some fascinating background detail about those rugged pioneering days of the SGML revolution - — I for one would like to know what became of the Atari SGML parser!

Lou Burnard

There are three points about which I want to provide further explanation. The first concerns the "planted" errors in the early AAP DTDs; the second relates to ACM; and, the third pertains to the Association of Research Libraries' activities.

As to the condition of the AAP DTDs, I hope you can recall that I said that the development of what ultimately became the AAP Standard was begun before SGML had even achieved formal ISO draft status. This was done, with obvious risk - - what if ISO had not approved SGML?? Just think were we would all be now!

SGML, of course, was in some form of ANSI evolution from the late 1970's. Fortunately, by the early 80's the core of SGML had reached a fairly solid condition. Much work remained in refining and enhancing that core. And that was the focus of the ANSI/ISO committee efforts during the period 1982-1986. In addition, once the standard had reached a nearly complete form, the ANSI/ISO community moved rather quickly to get SGML through the draft and final approval cycles, saving us on the AAP Project significant embarrassment.

To give you a calendar metric, the AAP project was launched in late 1983. It produced its final report and initial set of DTDs in February 1986 -- about eight months before the officially approved ISO version of SGML. The earliest attempts to use the primitive SGML tools to describe the AAP document structures were useful in getting us headed in the right direction. It was a bit of a juggling act, however, to keep the AAP technical efforts completely synchronous with the evolving SGML. (You folks on the TEI project have it so much easier -- he says truly ingenuously!)

The point I was trying to make was that we on the AAP Project were working with a bit of a moving target. And, in the later AAP project phases, as SGML began to solidify and become more widely circulated as a draft ISO document, its complexity was a bit of an impediment to understanding its richness and utility. Still a problem today.

As we were obligated to share the draft AAP DTDs with a panel of publishing technology and "SGML" experts, we wanted to be certain that the material we were presenting for review was being thoroughly read. Our simple "test" was to plant a few obvious errors in the DTDs to see if our reviewers were paying attention. There were no SGML parsers in 1985 save a very limited "toy" that Charles Goldfarb had built to operate on his home ATARI! That meant that the only way to catch an error was to read the whole DTD character by character.

The result of the review drill was that most errors were caught. In fact, most of the errors were ones that we made by being unfamiliar with SGML applications development and not correctly interpreting SGML's metalinguistic rules. There were even a few instances where we discovered syntactic conflicts in the draft versions of SGML that were subsequently rectified -- contributing to the refinement of SGML. (In its final year, the AAP Project did serve a valuable role in "testing" some aspects of SGML as it too was taking final shape.)

Anyhow, whatever the "planted" errors, and I recall only three egregious instances, they were removed long before the AAP DTDs received any form of wide circulation. The more important issue today, that I apparently did not make clear, was the revision to the AAP DTDs that is now underway to correct errors and ambiguities that were unintentional. And, as you reported, revised, corrected versions of the DTDs are likely to be available later this year.

While on the AAP theme, let me add that the DTDs for math and tabular material are not quite as rife with problems as you may have thought I suggested. The AAP math material has been very useful in many commercial publishing applications that are alive and well. The TeX vs SGML debate continues apace independently of the AAP Standard. The tabular component of the AAP Standard has seen even wider use.

The SAE project that I described, uses the AAP tabular approach as the basis of the engineering data tables that are part of their aerospace and ground vehicle standards publications. Many CALS compliant applications have used the AAP tabular material approach. What I was trying to emphasize was that work remains in improving the AAP math and tabular components. EPSIG is now soliciting comments and suggestions about those components. I hope that those who were at the Amsterdam meeting who are interested in contributing ideas, will respond to the solicitation.

The one point about my description of the ACM project that needs clarification concerns the use of the AAP standard for manuscript submissiomn. I am certain that I didn't say that for electronic submissions, ACM will mandate the use of an SGML application. The overhead that I used and was part of my handout, clearly shows that full SGML application tagging will occur at the receiving end -- that is at the ACM headquarters. SGML application tagging can certainly be done by the authors and editors, but it will not be mandated. There are basic guidelines that are suggested for electronic submissions, but they cannot be followed without requiring authors to do comprehensive source document tagging. As the ACM project evolves and suitable tools become more prevalent, the groundrules for electronic submissions can be expected to change.

Finally, about the Association of Research Libraries activitis, the electronic journal effort that I described is a very recent initiative. Any "seed" funding from the National Science Foundation or others has not yet been established. The only thing that should be reported is that project funding will be addressed upon completion of the formal project plan -- and that is still to be completed. At this stage it is assumed that the technical basis for the collaborative information interchange will likely build on widely accepted standards, including the AAP Standard.