October 28, 2003

XML co-inventor Bray simplifying huge data sets

From time to time, I like to check in with so-called IT Thought Leaders who, at some point, invented something important or helped lead an initiative that resulted in something important. Today's subject is Tim Bray, a Vancouver, B.C.-based gentleman who -- along with Sun's Jon Bosak and several others -- led enough thought in 1996 to become the co-inventor and editor of XML, that now-ubiquitous data syntax that helps move digital information from one computer or server to another. What's he up to now, you say? Glad you asked. (We're going to tease you a bit here. Bray's running a company that seems to be on to something big. He's also got a tip on a hot new technology that we'll get to in a minute.)

Since 1999, Bray has run Antarctica Systems, which enables better visualization of business data, so that company executives and IT managers can make more informed marketplace decisions.

Solving the 'pain point' of the UI

"Visual Net (version 4.0 was released in September) solves the pain point in applications and in data stores," Bray said, "and that pain point is the user interface. What got everyone to use computers in the first place was the GUI. Our product is a GUI specifically for the information space."

Tim Bray

Visual Net is a purely browser-based graphical user interface that offers map-based visual representations of such complicated data as business intelligence and charts and graphs from databases and enterprise resource planning (ERP) sources. It runs on locally installed, server-side software. "It's just an old-fashioned HTML and JavaScript app; we changed over from a Flash-based setup," Bray said. "It works well in any post-5.0 browser -- IE, Netscape, Safari, Mozilla, Opera ... any of them."

Antarctica is focusing almost totally on the business intelligence arena -- and further, on companies or organizations with "big data sets," Bray said. "These are the companies where a business executive wants to know something right away, and then asks someone to ask 'Fred the geek in the backroom to run the report.' That's where we offer the most value -- taking rocket-science-type data and making it understandable."

Point-and-click vs. order-and-wait

Bray's solution is to make company/market information immediately available through point-and-click, instead of order-and-wait. Most of Antarctica's revenues come from milking information out of big databases, such as those with SAS, Oracle, IBM, or SQL software. VN also serves as the UI for several ERP inventory systems.

"A perfect example of how the Internet isn't able to present this kind of information in very understandable ways is this: When you're using a browser, you have plenty of graphics (photos, animations, videos, etc.) to help you understand the message. When you do a search, however, say on Google, all you get is text-based information. That's really a pretty big limitation," Bray said.

Bray says that "even smart people are often bad at extrapolating information" from text, charts, graphs, and other standard data pictures. "What VN does is offer data in pictures that everybody can easily understand," he said.

This map view shows ways to find Harry Potter books and other materials in the library (click to enlarge).

The Visual Net 4.0 screen shot at the right shows a tree of information connected with the "Harry Potter" book series as it would be found in a library. Belmont Abbey College Library deployed Visual Net to create a visual interface for all of its library holdings, arranged on maps in Library of Congress classification order. A stylized bookshelf was used as the top-level map to represent the main classification headings. Students choose a subject and simply click on the map to zoom in and see that subject, further divided, and all of its holdings.

Visual Net 4.0 takes three types of information -- textual, numeric, and geographic -- and makes it visual, individually or integrated. One example: A user might view a company's most profitable product SKUs based on sales, and then with a mouse click choose to view the least profitable products based on percentage.

A little more background on Bray: He has significant credibility in the Web development world. In 1994, he built and launched the Open Text Index, one of the first successful commercial Web search engines. Between 1996 and 1998 he worked in the group that invented XML, serving as co-editor of the XML 1.0 for the World Wide Web Consortium. Since 1999, in addition to running Antarctica Systems, he's kept quite busy on XML-related standards committees and is active on several XML-related mailing lists.

Suggests checking out RELAX NG

That leads us to our final point. What's Bray been doing in the XML realm, the place where he made his name known worldwide?

"Oh, there's lot of new things happening there right now, especially in the Xquery space," he said. "Another thing I'm very excited about is RELAX NG, a relatively new schema language for XML. It's elegant, lightweight, easier to learn and read, and does a lot more than previous versions. Check it out; it's gonna change the world."

Yes, Tim Bray actually said that this would change the world. So you should probably check it out. The RELAX NG site lists a number of key features in the introduction.

RELAX NG is based on TREX by Thailand-based James Clark and RELAX by Murata Mokoto. It's now in the final stages of review for the W3C standards approval process.

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