When a judge halted the sale of Microsoft Word on Tuesday for infringing a patent, many of us wondered about the repercussions of this decision. The patent itself, for the creation of custom XML documents, seemed like an afterthought, and for good reason: The average user never has and never will use Word for this purpose.
But now, you may be curious. What is XML anyway, and why is it such a big deal?
Think of XML as a way to define what kind of information goes into a document. So, as I'm writing this story in Word, I could hypothetically use XML to denote the story's title as "headline," my name as "byline," and the article itself as the "body."
Now, PC World might be interested in having my article marked up like this for a variety of reasons. The most basic purpose would be to store information on my work in a database, so they could easily determine how many articles I've written. But where XML really gets useful is in its ability to edit the documents themselves and create new ones.
So, let's say PC World wanted to publish a book containing all the blogs posted on the Web site this year. Provided that every Word document was marked up with the appropriate XML tags, PC World could use a script to format all the documents in the same way, with headlines in a certain size, bylines in bold, and text in a specific font. If I tagged the subject of the article with XML, it'd even be possible to create a new document containing all the writing I've done on that particular subject.
The patent by i4i offers a "Method and System for Manipulating the Architecture and the Content of a Document Separately from Each Other." That's fairly vague, but it generally pertains to the editing of content in a document that's been marked up with XML. Microsoft has a patent that's more specific, in that it offers a way for computing devices to grab data from a marked up XML document without the need for word processing software.
Still not planning on using XML any time soon? At least you won't miss it if Microsoft has to pull the feature to keep Word on store shelves.