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XML is like...

XML is like tobacco. Some people choose to smoke tobacco, some people choose to work with XML at an intimate technical level. Non-smokers can't avoid cigarette smoke; they're exposed to it in pubs, in doorways, in taxis, in outdoor cafes, in parks. We call that exposure "passive smoking". Like passive smoking, we are all being exposed to XML. Whether we like it or not, it's already all around us. But unlike cigarette smoke, we don't really notice XML.

So maybe XML is more like a carcinogen. We don't notice it's there, but we're still getting exposed to it. In ever-increasing doses. But unlike a carcinogen, XML is not bad for our health; in fact, it has many life-enhancing properties. Well, work-enhancing properties.

Perhaps XML is like radio waves. They're all around us, but we don't notice them. They provide a benefit to us, because we can turn on a radio and hear transmitted music. There are technicians involved in the production of radio waves at a technical level, but most people recording songs and phoning talk-back know nothing about radio waves. Many don't even think about the miracle of radio waves and the electromagnetic spectrum, that makes it possible for a human voice to be sent around the world at the speed of light.

XML is an "enabling" technology. It makes amazing things possible. And although we're only at the very start of the XML era, it's already all around us. Do you use Internet Explorer 5? That's an XML browser. Do you read a newspaper? When journalists say a story has arrived 'on the wire', they are referring to a "newsfeed" or an RSS feed. RSS is XML. Do you have a WAP phone? WAP pages are XML. Have you bought something on eBay? XML is behind eBay's trading system. Do you use Office 2000? XML. Buying a book from Amazon? XML yet again. Did you get a telephone bill last month? Yes, most likely XML again.

But what about in the world of help authoring? Have you used an HTML Help file? Its Table of Contents is in an XML format called SiteMap. Have you used RoboHelp? Some of its project information is stored in XML. Or AuthorIT, or XDK? Both use XML during importation and generation. And you probably know that the current W3C HTML standard is actually XHTML 1.1; XHTML is XML.

Most of us have been exposed to huge doses of XML, but we just didn't notice. As consumers of XML-enabled services, we don't have to understand how XML works, just like we don't need to know how radio waves work. However, as creators of content, a knowledge of what XML is, and more importantly, what benefits it can offer, are becoming increasingly important. For example, what benefit is there in storing Word documents in XML format rather than DOC format? What benefit is there to me if I create my next procedure manual in DocBook (an XML format suitable for software manuals).

Learning about XML is quite a task, so it is important to start straight away. If you already understand HTML (or SGML) and CSS , you'll have a head start. If you've previously worked with databases, then that's an advantage too. You see, XML is a database format as well as a document format. There are many resources on the World Wide Web to start you off (try www.xml.com as a good first step). Pick up a suitable book at a bookshop. Or find yourself an appropriate training course or seminar. Don't leave it too late... it's too important!

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