SGML Europe 96 was held this year in a very large and expensive hotel in Munich, adjacent to what would have been very pleasant park if the weather had been less damp. I travelled there from the Tyrol by train, thus missing the opening ceremonies (by all accounts a rather lachrymose affair, this being the first major conference since the death of Yuri Rubinsky to whose memory the event was dedicated), but saving the TEI the cost of an extra night's stay in said hotel. I did arrive in time to hear Charles Goldfarb give his "Inventor's Keynote", from which I learned that Charles has been thinking about the World Wide Web, and perhaps regretting that he didn't take the chance to set Tim Berners-Lee right about SGML when he had it. When titans meet, Dr Goldfarb opined, one should find another field -- sound advice, with reference to web browser wars, but rather defeatist for those of us who think that the SGML community might have something to learn from the runaway success of the web. Key events of the year were the publication of DSSSL; and some reorganization and realignment of various competing areas of HyTime and DSSSL activities, notably the definition of the Standard Document Query Language and of the HyTime "general facilities" (aka the useful bits -- architectural forms, property sets, groves, formal system identifiers etc). Charles also proudly announced his "Purity Test" for so-called SGML-conformant applications, on which see http://www.SGMLsource.com/Goldfarb/purity.html, if you care about such things.
The real function of conferences like this one is not however to listen to presentations, however inspirational, but to hobnob with the vendors, who were there in force. There were three exhibition halls full of variously sized booths to do this in, with almost all major players represented (conspicuously absent were Microsoft and Novell) and many minor ones, throughout the proceedings, pausing only for the evening reception (on the 24th floor, commanding magnificent views of some very damp tree tops). I duly hobnobbed, to the point of exhaustion, as did most of the other 300 or so delegates, when not drifting in and out of sessions.
Here are a few of the software products that made some impression on me: some newish SGML authoring tools, notably InContext (the new version is now reduced in price to the point where we could actually afford it), and Stilo, which is nearly available -- and both of which successfully processed the TEI dtds under my suspicious gaze. Folio Views had put a lot of money into free mugs and pads proclaiming "Folio does SGML" (I am told that this is somewhat economical of the truth). Astoria, the new SGML object database from Xerox, had an immense and very busy stand. At the STEP booth, they were busily producing a daily news bulletin directly from an online news feed, converting it automagically to SGML and formatting and printing it in real time. Synex, makers of Panorama, are now actively marketing their Viewport engine at a price we certainly cannot afford. Jouve have a (comparatively) cheap and cheerful CD-ROM production system called GTI publisher which could give DynaText a run for its money. AIS have a new version of Balise (with a new logo) and a new English manual on the stocks. At the cheaper end of the market, two new application development toolkits were in evidence, one called SGML-C, from Bruce Hunter, and the other, called NSL originally developed for the Multext project by Henry Thompson. Both worth hunting down on the net.
Even had I not been somewhat pre-occupied with getting my part of the closing plenary session ready, it would have been impossible to take in all this as well as the three parallel tracks, so my report is necessarily somewhat fragmentary. I listened to a session on document management systems, which included a good overview of issues in document database design from John Chelsom, and a characteristically pragmatic discussion of ways of building hybrid distributed document databases from John McFadden (see http://www.exoterica.com/pres/hddb). I dipped in and out of a major overview of SGML software tools organized by Steve Pepper (Falch) and Robin Tomlin (SGML Open), in the hope that this would stop defining criteria and start evaluating products (it didn't -- but the overview was very thorough). I attended a session about the role of SGML on the internet, which featured Eric van Herwijnen and Martin Bryan, neither of whom had anything new to say on the subject (though Eric had some nice pictures); Jon Bosak, in a different session, also addressed the web and had some rather sharper comments to make: (see http://www.sgmlopen.org/sgml/docs/library/dssslo.htm). I was rather disappointed to find that no-one apparently had anything to say about the importance of SGML as an archival format, or a metadata format, and I don't think I heard the phrase "digital library" mentioned once in four days, which seems odd. The conversations I heard in the halls were all about document production and document management, the intranet and improving your organization's information flow. I heard nothing about ICADD or the TEI, or how SGML might be of use to the rest of us, which was all rather depressing.
The final plenary began with Dale Waldt explaining at some length just why commercial publishers love (or should love) SGML, which somewhat reinforced my prejudices against them. I found myself speaking up for academia and reminding the conference that maybe SGML had a more significant role to play than just helping publishers and consultants get rich, and that its true Destiny was to preserve our cultural heritage. I also suggested that it really shouldn't be so difficult to get started with SGML, the basic notions of which can be jotted down on the back of an envelope, a theme which I was glad to see Tim Bray pick up in his masterly wrap up of the whole proceedings (see http://andor.opentext.com/~tbray/SGML-Europe/index.html). Tim stopped in the middle of his presentation (done like almost everyone else's with Powerpoint), exported it as an HTML file with one click of the mouse, and asked the question the SGML Industry really needs to answer: why is it so difficult for vendors to build true SGML support in with comparable user friendliness and simplicity?
Outside the conference, for the first time since I arrived in Germany, the sun came out. It was a public holiday, so the park was full of cheerful Bavarians drinking beer and eating sausages to the accompaniment of an oom-pa band. Time to go home...