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XML Basics for Java Developers, Part 1

by Patrick Niemeyer and Jonathan Knudsen

This is the first in a series of book excerpts on XML fundamentals for Java developers from Learning Java, 2nd Edition

An Introduction to XML

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Learning Java
By Patrick Niemeyer, Jonathan Knudsen

Every now and then, an idea comes along that in retrospect seems just so simple and obvious that everyone wonders why it hadn't been seen all along. Often when that happens, it turns out that the idea isn't really all that new after all. The Java revolution began by drawing on ideas from all the programming languages that came before it. Now, XML--the Extensible Markup Language--is doing for content what Java did for programming: providing a portable language for describing data.

XML is a simple, common format for representing structured information as text. The concept of XML follows the success of HTML as a universal document presentation format and generalizes it to handle any kind of data. In the process, XML has not only recast HTML but is transforming the way that businesses think about their information. In the context of a world driven more and more by documents and data exchange, XML's time has come.

A Bit of Background

XML and HTML are called markup languages because of the way they add structure to plain-text documents--by surrounding parts of the text with tags that indicate structure or meaning, much as someone with a pen might highlight a sentence and add a note. While HTML predefines a set of tags and their structure, XML is a blank slate in which the author gets to define the tags, the rules, and their meanings.

Both XML and HTML owe their lineage to Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML)--the mother of all markup languages. SGML has been used in the publishing industry for many years (including at O'Reilly). But it wasn't until the Web captured the world that it came into the mainstream through HTML. HTML started as a very small application of SGML, and if HTML has done anything at all, it has proven that simplicity reigns.

In This Series

XML Basics for Java Developers, Part 5
In this final in a series of XML basics for Java developers book excerpts from Learning Java, 2nd Edition, get an introduction to XSL/XSLT and Web services.

XML Basics for Java Developers, Part 4
In part four in a series of XML basics for Java developers book excerpts from Learning Java, 2nd Edition, learn about validating documents.

XML Basics for Java Developers, Part 3
In part three in this series of book excerpts on XML basics for Java developers from Learning Java, 2nd Edition, learn about the Document Object Model (DOM).

XML Basics for Java Developers, Part 2
In this second part in a several part series on XML for Java developers from Learning Java, 2nd Edition, learn about SAX and the SAX API.

HTML flourished but eventually showed its limitations. Documents using HTML have an unhealthy mix of structural information (such as <head> and <body>) and presentation information (for an egregious example, <blink>). Mixing the model and the user interface in this way limits the usefulness of HTML as a format for data exchange; it's hard for a machine to understand. XML documents consist purely of structure, and it is up to the reader of the document to apply meaning. As we'll see in this chapter, several related languages exist to help interpret and transform XML for presentation or further processing.

Text Versus Binary

When Tim Berners-Lee began postulating the Web back at CERN in the late 1980s, he wanted to organize project information using hypertext. When the Web needed a protocol, HTTP--a simple, text-based client-server protocol--was invented. So what exactly is so enchanting about the idea of plain text? Why, for example, didn't Tim turn to the Microsoft Word format as the basis for Web documents? Surely a binary, non-human-readable format and protocol would be more efficient? Since the Web's inception, there have now been trillions of HTTP transactions. Was it really a good idea for them to use (English) words like "GET" and "POST"?

The answer, as we've all seen, is yes! What humans can read, human developers can work with more easily. There is a time and place for a high level of optimization (and obscurity), but when the goal is universal acceptance and cross-platform portability, simplicity and transparency are paramount. This is the first, fundamental proposition of XML.

A Universal Parser

Using text to exchange data is not exactly a new idea, either, but historically, for every new document format that came along, a new parser would have to be written. A parser is an application that reads a document and understands its formatting conventions, usually enforcing some rules about the content. For example, the Java Properties class has a parser for the standard properties file format (Chapter 10). In our simple spreadsheet in Chapter 17, we wrote a parser capable of understanding basic mathematical expressions. As we've seen, depending on complexity, parsing can be quite tricky.

With XML, we can represent data without having to write this kind of custom parser. This isn't to say that it's reasonable to use XML for everything (e.g., typing math expressions into our spreadsheet), but for the common types of information that we exchange on the Net, we should no longer have to write parsers that deal with basic syntax and string manipulation. In conjunction with document-verifying components (DTDs or XML Schema), much of the complex error checking is also done automatically. This is the second fundamental proposition of XML.

The State of XML

The APIs we'll discuss in this chapter are powerful and well tested. They are being used around the world to build enterprise-scale systems today. Unfortunately, the current slate of XML tools bundled with Java only partially remove the burden of parsing from the developer. Although we have taken a step up from low-level string manipulation to a common, structured document format, the standard tools still generally require the developer to write low-level code to traverse the content and interpret the string data manually. The resulting program remains somewhat fragile, and much of the work can be tedious. The next step, as we'll discuss briefly later in this chapter, is to begin to use generating tools that read a description of an XML document (an XML DTD or Schema) and generate Java classes or bind existing classes to XML data automatically.


As of Java 1.4, all the basic APIs for working with XML are bundled with Java. This includes the javax.xml standard extension packages for working with Simple API for XML (SAX), Document Object Model (DOM), and Extensible Stylesheet Language (XSL) transforms. If you are using an older version of Java, you can still use all these tools, but you will have to download the packages separately from http://java.sun.com/xml/.

XML and Web Browsers

Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser was the first to support XML explicitly. If you load an XML document in IE 5.0 or greater, it is displayed as a tree using a special stylesheet. The stylesheet uses dynamic HTML to allow you to collapse and expand nodes while viewing the document. IE also supports basic XSL transformation directly in the browser. We'll talk about XSL later in this chapter.

Netscape 6.x and the latest Mozilla browsers also understand XML content and support the rendering of documents using XSL. At the time of this writing, however, they don't offer a friendly viewer by default. You can use the "view source" option to display an XML document in a nicely formatted way. But in general, if you load an XML document into either of these browsers, or any browser that doesn't explicitly transform it, it simply displays the text of the document with all the tags (structural information) stripped off. This is the prescribed behavior for working with XML.

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