Tim Bray: father of XML, uncle of search engines

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      Tim Bray is the director of Web technologies at Sun Microsystems, the publisher of a popular blog (www.tbray.org/ongoing/), and cochair of the IETF Atompub working group. But in the future, he will likely be best remembered as the father of XML (extensible markup language).

      Besides being the principal innovator behind XML, Bray did pioneering work on search engines, starting in the '90s. During a photo shoot in a Vancouver studio, he points out: "I haven't done any work on XML in a few years. The other things I work on are important and interesting too. Chances are, XML will lead my obituary."

      Bray, who lives in Vancouver, defines XML in this way: "It is a method for packing up electronic data and documents so that–having been packed up on one computer anywhere in the world–they can be reliably unpacked on any other computer anywhere else in the world”¦then or many years later, and used for whatever purpose desired, without regard to the originator's intent." His answer to the question of what he does these days is clearer: "I help Sun [Microsystems] by being aware of what the people who build the Internet are thinking and doing–I have to help build the Internet to do this–and ensuring that those people and Sun know about each other."

      Most of Bray's accomplishments came after he completed a double major in mathematics and computer science at the University of Guelph in 1981. He decided to enter computer science when he realized that the job market for math teachers was poor. "In math, I had worked like a dog to get Cs, and all of a sudden I was getting As in the computer courses. God was reaching behind my shoulder, telling me, 'Kiddo, this is what you ought to be doing.' And I did."

      Bray's pivotal experience happened while he was working at the University of Waterloo in 1987, digitizing the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. "We had a specially constructed search engine. In an early Web-publishing conference in 1994, one of the speakers stood up and said: 'Search is going to be a good application for the new "Web thing".' He set a bomb in my head. All of a sudden I could see how to build a Web search engine. I went to live in Yaletown and worked on the engine for six months. I ate and drank beer at the Yaletown Brewing Company as my only relief. I started the Open Text Corporation and Open Text, [which] was a commercialized and early search engine based on the high-performance engine we employed in the OED project. We were one of the top ones and partnered with Yahoo! The way search engines are now was invented by many people inserting little contributions, and Google put in the big one of linking counting to rankings. I think I was the first person to number the results 1, 2, 3”¦ There are little bits of everybody's handiwork in there."

      Bray, who studied the cello for 20 years, is urbane and well-read. He is a populist of sorts. There's a smile on his face when he talks about the Web, and especially about Wikipedia. Although some people see Wikipedia's transformation of the Net as too populist and charge that it perpetuates a cycle of misinformation and ignorance, Bray sees it differently. "By and large, Wikipedia results are quite good, and when errors creep in they tend to be self-correcting on a fairly quick basis. There are errors in Wikipedia and there are errors in the Britannica; the difference is that the errors in Wikipedia get fixed. The reason it works well is that there is a community of engaged people who have found they have a passion for being amateur encyclopedists. It is a good thing because it should teach the really important lesson that you cannot believe what you read. If Wikipedia says something that is true, that is indicative, it's not definitive. You need to look at the primary sources, but Wikipedia will take you there."

      Citing Clive Thompson's December 2006 New York Times Magazine article on how the American intelligence agencies are banding together and creating a proprietary blog and wiki, Bray mentions that he travels to Washington, D.C. "I have done a lot of work for the intelligence community, principally for the NSA [National Security Agency].”¦It [Washington] is a distinctly odd place. I love it. If I were to start my career again, I just might well plunge headlong into intelligence."

      In trying to figure out the enigmatic man with the trademark Akubra hat, perhaps we should heed what Bray says of himself: "I'm kind of an open book. My soul is there to read in my blog."

      Link: Tim Bray's official blog