Profile: Linking XML with the real world

If success in today's competitive world depends on an ability to predict which technologies will be the standards of the future, then Steve Ball of Canberra-based Zveno is destined for great things.

An experienced software engineer and manager, Steve has been working with XML for the past four years and is widely regarded as one of Australia's leading experts in this environment.

In fact, if you log onto the XML section of the Web site of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which is coordinating global efforts to establish standards and technical specifications for technologies like XML, two of Steve's tools are listed as leading examples of XML products.

"I've been aware of XML for about four years but really started working on it in earnest in 1997 when I became convinced it would be the next big thing on the Web," says Steve.

"I think XML will become the standard for data interchange and am increasingly seeing situations where companies that have previously standardised on technologies like CORBA are moving to XML products for their transaction processing.

"XML is particularly significant because of its ability to overcome the limitations of HTML and to distribute information in a format that can be interpreted and used not only by humans, but by machines.

"Over the next few years we're going to increasingly want to take processes that currently involve human interactions and automate them via the Web.

"For example, I've been working on a project for a government client to provide a directory service for all Australian businesses to exchange data with the Government and other businesses using XML-based languages.

"XML is ideal for this because, unlike HTML, it's capable of communicating with a wide range of platforms and environments.

"Another contract on which I am working is the use of XML in electronic publishing to enable information from a single source to be presented in multiple media such as HTML Web files, PDF files for both Web and paper-based publications, and potentially wireless devices."

Prior to his current contract, Steve worked on a range of XML-related projects for government clients while also developing the tools offered by his company, Zveno, which loosely means "link" in Russian.

He is actively involved in the international XML community, presenting papers at conferences, participating in workshops and standards development committees, and contributing to various publications.

Steve describes himself as dedicated, forward-thinking (perhaps even visionary), and, like most IT professionals, overworked, but says he is careful to ensure his life isn't dominated by work.

"I choose to work primarily from home so I can have a better blend of my home life and work, and spend more time with my family. It's exactly those sorts of lifestyle issues that have kept me here in Australia rather than succumbing to the temptation to move to Silicon Valley."

Steve says a number of his colleagues have taken that step, and he believes it has diminished Australia's standing in the international XML arena.

"Twelve months ago we had people in this country who were really participating on XML standards issues, but unfortunately many of the key ones have moved overseas and I haven't seen others step up to take their place," he says.

"In terms of applying XML, I think we're certainly on the leading edge and part of that is motivated by XML's multilingual capabilities, which is also why Europe is so keen on this technology.

"XML itself is just a starting point to layer other applications and technologies on top which makes it enormously versatile. In the XML courses I teach, about half of the first day is spent on XML itself, and then we start to move into everything else that surrounds it."

One of Steve's particular specialisations is Tcl, which has been called "the best kept secret on the Internet". A simple scripting language, Tcl is used in a wide variety of embedded systems, such as telephone exchange control systems.

Last year, Steve's book, Web Tcl Complete, was published by McGraw-Hill, providing an exhaustive introduction to how Tcl/Tk can be used to create XML Web applications.

And is XML just another flash in the pan?

"I don't think so," says Steve. "XML is so general purpose that it's unlikely there will be anything to challenge it directly within the next five years. There are lots of new standards coming out, but they all live on top of XML rather than replacing it," he says.

International XML citizen Steve Ball also speaks Tcl - and makes his ideas available at www.w3c.org

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