Eric F. Savage

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Life After JSON, Part 1

XML. Simply saying that term can elicit a telling reaction from people. Some will roll their eyes. Some will wait for you to say something meaningful. Some will put their headphones back on and ignore the guy that sounds like a enterprise consultant. JSON is where it’s at. It’s new. It’s cool. Why even bother with stupid old XML. JSON is just plain better. Right?

Wrong. But that’s not to say that it’s worse, it’s just not flat-out better, and I’m a little concerned that it’s become the de facto data format because it’s really not very good at that role. I think its success is a historical accident, and the lessons to be learned here are not why JSON is so popular, but why XML failed.

Without going into too much detail, XML came out of the need to express data as more complex relationships than formats like CSV allowed. We had OOP steamrolling everything else in the business world, HTML was out in the wild showing that this “tag” idea had promise, and computers and I/O were finally able to handle this type of stuff at a cost level that didn’t require accounting for every byte of space.

In the beginning, it worked great. It broke through much of headaches of other formats, it was easy to write, even without fancy tools, and nobody was doing anything fancy enough in it that you had to spend a ton of time learning how to use it. After that though, things got a little, actually a lot … messy. User njl at Hacker News sums it up very nicely:

I remember teaching classes in ’99 where I needed to explain XML. I could do it in five minutes — it’s like HTML, but you get to make up tags that are case-sensitive. Every start tag needs to have an end tag, and attributes need to be quoted. Put this magic tag at the start, so parsers know it’s XML. Here’s the special case for a tag that closes itself.
Then what happened? Validation, the gigantic stack of useless WS-* protocols, XSLT, SOAP, horrific parser interfaces, and a whole slew of enterprise-y technologies that cause more problems than they solve. Like COBRA, Ada, and every other “enterprise” technology that was specified first and implemented later, all of the XML add-ons are nice in theory but completely suck to use.

So we have a case here of a technology being so flexible and powerful that everyone started using it and “improving” it. We started getting asked questions by recruiters like “can you program in XML” and “they used to do C++ but now they’re trying to use a lot more XML”. We had insanely complex documents that were never in step with the schemas they supposedly used. We had big piles of namespaces nobody understood in the interest of standards and reusable code.

Where the pain was really felt was in the increasing complexity of the libraries that were supposed to make XML easy to use, even transparent. There was essentially an inexhaustible list of features that a library “needed” to support, and thus none of them were ever actually complete, or stable. 15 years later there are still problems with XML parsing and library conflicts and weird characters that are legal here but not there.

So, long before anyone heard of JSON, XML had a bad rep. While the core idea of it was sound, it ultimately failed to achieve it’s primary goal of being a universal data interchange format that could scale from the simplest document to the most complex. People were eager to find a solution that delivered the value XML promised without the headaches it delivered. In fact, they still are, as nothing has really come close yet, including JSON, but perhaps we can build on the lessons of both XML and JSON to build the real next-big-thing.

XML ended up being used for everything from service message requests and responses to configuration files to local data stores. It was used for files that were a few hundred bytes to many gigabytes. It was used for data meant to represent a single model to a set of models to a stream of simple models that had no relation to each other. The fact that you could use it for all of these things was the sexy lure that drew everyone to it. Not only could you use it for all of these things but it was actually designed to be used for all of these things. Wow!

Ultimately, I think this was the reason for it’s downfall, and JSON’s unsuitability for doing everything has not surprisingly been the reason for it’s ascendance on its home turf (JavaScript calling remote services). Does it really make sense for my application configuration file to use the same format as my data caches and as my web services? Even now it’s hard for me to say that it’s a bad idea because the value of having one format to parse, one set of rules to keep in mind, one set of expectations I don’t need to cover in my documentation is nice. But with XML and JSON both proving this to be false in different ways, we have to take it as such.

The problem that’s on the horizon is that as JSON becomes the go-to format for new developers to use, the people that have been told all along that XML is bad and horrible and “harmful”, they’re using it for everything. We’re heading towards a situtation where we have replaced a language that is failing to do what it was designed to do with a language that is failing to do things it was never designed to do, which I think would actually be worse. Even if it’s not worse, it’s certainly still bad.

If we abide by the collective answer that XML is not the answer, or at least it’s the answer we don’t like, and my prediction that JSON isn’t either, what is? And why is nobody working on it? Or are they?

To be continued…

  • Sri

    I had issues with JSON, By using JSON for everything, we are making the data flow from/to front end to/from backend. I will go with simpler, plain approach rather making the things more complicated

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