XML: KISS and Tell

– Vishesh Gupta

The characters:

KISS, The Guru

KISS is an acronym for the design principle “Keep it simple, Stupid!”. The KISS principle states that simplicity should be a key goal in design and that unnecessary complexity should be avoided. The acronym was first coined by Kelly Johnson, lead engineer at the Lockheed Skunk Works (creators of the Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes, among many others).

The principle is best exemplified by the story of Johnson handing a team of design engineers a handful of tools, with the challenge that the jet aircraft they were designing must be repairable by an average mechanic in the field under combat conditions with only these tools. Hence, the ‘stupid’ refers to the relationship between the way things break and the sophistication available to fix them.

KISS has been serving as a Guru for many, with XML being one of his disciples.

XML, The disciple

XML stands for eXtensible Markup Language. It is a markup language much like HTML, designed to carry data. Its tags are not predefined.

XML is a W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) recommendation. It was created so that richly structured documents could be used over the web. The only viable alternatives, HTML and SGML, are not practical for this purpose.

XML, simple and self-descriptive, has shot to fame all around the world in a short span of time. He has for long been a disciple and a keen follower of KISS. XML is modest and is easily available to anyone who wants to seek him out.

Mr. Tech Writer, The Modern Technical Writer

Mr. Tech Writer is a modern day technical writer who wishes to seek knowledge on documentation over the web.

* * *

The Conversation:

This is the part of the conversation that I was able to sneak up to and overhear…

Mr. Tech Writer: Sir, what is the purpose of your life and why should I appreciate you?

XML (smiling): In order to appreciate me, it is important to understand why I was created. I was created so that richly structured documents could be used over the web. The only viable alternatives, HTML and SGML, are not practical for this purpose.

HTML comes bound with a set of semantics and does not provide an arbitrary structure.

SGML provides an arbitrary structure, but is too difficult to implement just for a web browser.

KISS: Concepts are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.

Mr. Tech Writer: But Sir, are you compatible with SGML?

XML: I am compatible with SGML. Most of the people involved with me come from organizations that have a large amount of material in SGML. XML was designed pragmatically, to be compatible with existing standards while solving the relatively new problem of sending richly structured documents over the web.

Mr. Tech Writer: What about Single Sourcing?

XML: I shall make it easier for you to produce documents for many different output media (such as pdf, online help or the Web) from a single source.

Mr. Tech Writer: Are you easy to learn, write, and develop?

XML: If, like many people, you have never quite been able to get your brains around SGML but have been impressed by the possibilities for information publishing and retrieval offered by the World Wide Web, I could be the final piece of the puzzle that you’ve been looking for.

I shall be easy to create and edit. It is possible to create my documents directly in a text editor, with simple Shell and Perl scripts, etc.

KISS: Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Mr. Tech Writer: Is it possible to tailor the layout of the same document according to the type of audience?

XML: Yes. Document types can be explicitly tailored to an audience. So the cumbersome editing that has to take place with HTML to achieve the desired layout shall become a thing of the past. You will be free to invent your own markup elements.

KISS: The simplest explanation is usually the best.

Mr. Tech Writer (a little confused):my own markup elements?

XML (smiling again): You might be asking yourself how the web browser or document processing system can possibly know what everything means if you have defined it all yourself.

One answer lies in the fact that I shall enable you to specify the meaning or purpose of each document element in the markup. You can identify a book with a <BOOK> tag or copyright information using a <COPYRIGHTINFO> tag.

You can combine explicit tag names with explicit attributes:

<BOOK  NAME=”The Secret” PAGES = “206”>

Another answer lies in the use of Style Sheets. The Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) standard was developed by the W3C to address the problem of web document formatting. Originally designed for HTML, CSS is fully compatible with me and makes it possible to specify the appearance of custom markup elements using any of a wide range of possibilities.

And as I have already told you, I shall also work with other style sheet standards designed for SGML.

KISS: Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Mr. Tech Writer (innocently): So, sir, is it right to call you HTML++?

XML (smiling harder): You can call me ‘SGML–‘ rather than ‘HTML++’! I provide all the advantages of the powerful content-based markup and scalability of SGML while enabling business documents to be published as easily as is currently possible with HTML.

KISS: Of two equivalent theories or explanations, all other things being equal, the simpler one is to be preferred.

Mr. Tech Writer (smiling): How do I go about convincing my boss?

XML (sarcastically): Well, you can name a Markup Tag after his name!

KISS: ‘Keep it simple, stupid’

Note from the author: The intent of this article is to highlight the simplicity and advantages of XML in Technical Documentation.

About the author:

Vishesh Gupta is a B. Tech in Electronics and Communication Engineering from Amity University and has been working at STMicroelectronics for a year, with the technical documentation team. When he is not working he likes to paint, write, listen to music, play football and with programming codes, not always in that order!

About the illustration:

Used with permission from Vishesh Gupta.


  1. Succinct and inspiring information in a very imaginative garb. Well written!

  2. Good and simple article explaining the advantage of XML.

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