A decade of power

Report on Belux96: Business Faculty, Brussells, 31 Oct 1996

I was invited to deliver the opening address at A decade of power, the third annual conference of the Belgium-Luxembourgian SGML Users' Group, held at the Business Faculty of Brussells University, just down the road from the airport (rather inconveniently for us Eurostar-fanatics). The day long event was well attended, with about fifty delegates, mostly from the industrial/publishing community in Belgium and the Netherlands, though there were also some academics present. There was a small exhibition, notably featuring Omnimark, Balise, Adobe, and Fotek, and a very friendly atmosphere. The day was given over to presentations, which I summarise below.

Lou Burnard (Oxford University)SGML on the Web

You can download the latest version of my presentation from my web site, including the overheads. As far as I remember, I explained at some length why HTML was a Bad Thing for electronic publishers (this is what the Americans call preaching to the choir), and rather more briefly why SGML was a Bad Thing for the Websurfer in the Street (which is probably what the Americans call making waves). I also made a few incautious remarks about what XML might be when it finally hits the street next month, which provoked some interest.

Elizabeth Gower (Adobe) Practical issues in SGML Publishing

The practical issues concerned all related to conversion of legacy data: how to do it, how to make sure you don't get ripped off by the company you sub-contract to do it, and why it's going to cost you more than you think. The presentation was slick, professional, thorough, and aimed fair and square at senior management: an invaluable checklist of practical things to do (make sure you've got enough MIPS and enough disk space! make sure your network can stand the load!) and how to benchmark the process, but not much on different software strategies you might adopt to do the conversion, or manage the results of doing it.

Norbert Mikula (Philips Semiconductors) Electronic databooks: proof of concept

Not content with writing an SGML parser (of sorts) in JAVA (imaginatively called Cappuccino), Mikula has also turned his hand to the production of Yet Another DSSSL Engine (or YADE), which uses Milowski's Kawa scheme interpreter, also written in Java. The context for these tools is the Philips Semiconductors Electronic Databook, an application of PCIS, the dtd Philips have developed within the Pinnacles framework, and forms the basis of Mikula's research at the University of Klagenfurt in Austria. His presentation was impressive, and although only in prototype form, the work he outlined shows great potential.

Milena Dobreva (Inst of Maths and CompSci, Sofia, Bulgaria) Use of SGML by philologists: experiences gained during the Medieval Slavic Manuscripts Encoding Project

This paper gave an overview of the trials and tribulations experienced by a group of Bulgarian philogists in applying the TEI Guidelines to the problems of describing and encoding medieval Slavic manuscripts. Dobreva's presentation focussed more on the organizational and training aspects of the project than its technical content, though she did briefly present the set of extensions the group had found it necessary to make to the TEI dtds, which were of some interest. The facility with which previously SGML-naive users were able to make useful progress, even in a technologically challenged environment, was very heartening, while the survey of common problems encountered was reassuringly familiar.

Benoit LaSalle (Omnimark Technologies) Using microdocuments and hybrid distributed databases for building up hypertext rich content online services

Exoterica Corporation has changed its name to Omnimark Technologies, and this paper was presented by its European sales head, rather than by Eric Skinner or John McFadden. Otherwise, this was much the same story as presented at Munich earlier this year: the future lies in microdocuments (crystals, or document fragments) which can be embedded within conventional table-like record structure. This is undoubtedly true, but would be more persuasive if there were evidence of implementations not simply hacked together from a mass of Omnimark scripts doing clever stuff behind the scenes.

Paul Hermans (ProText) Questor: publishing social law to different media

This was also a user-report, this time on an electronic publishing project concerned with course materials for social law. The material needed different organization for electronic access: for the former, a browser based on Synex viewport (the engine behind Panorama) was used, for the latter, Framemaker. The necessary data massage was carried out by Omnimark. They had begun with three separate dtds, for capture, hardcopy, and online, one of which also sported ICADD attributes subsequently abandoned for performance reasons; these had then been ingeniously combined into a single dtd. Hermans spent some time outlining the ways in which Hytime linking strategies had enabled them to organize the material for online searching in an effective way, before commenting that TEI extended pointers had proved a much easier option when it came to actually implementing the system with current SGML tools, which was also heartening.

Jacques Desseyne (Sema Group Belgium) The SGML Tree Transformation Process (STTP): processing SGML documents in an absolutely standardized way

This was a good introduction to the STTP side of the DSSSL specification, giving a clear overview of how it works, and why it is a distinct component of the DSSSL architecture. Deseyne rather fudged the issue of implementation, and did not make the expected announcement of a new Sema product, or not in public at least, but rumours were abundant during the coffee break.

Raf Schietekat (Fotek NV) DSSSL: the promise FOSI did not fulfill

This was the last paper of a long day, and I found it rather disappointing. It covered some basic principles of DSSSL in a rather mechanical way, and did not add much to my understanding of the overall scope of its formatting language. In particular, I had hoped for some explanation of what FOSIs are, before they become extinct, but did not receive one.