11436 SSO

Why XML won't die: XML vs. JSON for your API

Gregory Brail
Mar 17, 2011

Last week I wrote that if you're API doesn't support JSON and JSONP - you're doing it wrong.   I don't think that's terribly controversial.

But is JSON (and JSONP) perfect for everything you need to support with your API?  Is XML dead?

JSON is especially good at representing programming-language objects. If you have a JavaScript or Java object, or even a C struct, the structure of the object and all its fields can be easily and quickly converted to JSON, sent over a network, and retrieved on the other end without too much difficulty and (usually) comes out the same on both ends.

But not everything in the world is a programming-language object. Sometimes to describe a complex real-world object we have to combine different descriptions and languages from different places, mash them up, and use them to describe even more complex things. The descriptions of these complex things need to be validated, they need to be commented on, they need to be shared and sometimes annotated with additional data that doesn't affect the original structure.

When the world gets complicated and open-ended like that, what's needed is not a programming-language-format object, but a open-ended, extensible -- umm -- markup language. That's what we have today with XML.

For instance, the travel industry (through the Open Axis Group), the insurance industry (through ACORD) and the financial services industry (through FpML) have all spent many person-years developing standards that describe what they do in XML format. Each standard comes complete with a schema, which means that any client or server can validate a document to ensure it is correct enough before starting to parse it, and which makes it easier to edit the document using one of the many of the mature tools that are available.

Sure, parsing and understanding these documents is not simple, but they do not represent simple things. The ability to represent a complex travel itinerary, a life insurance policy, or an interest-rate swap in a standards-based format is a big deal and a triumph of XML technology.

Similarly, look at HTML. (Most HTML is not XML but both come from SGML and are very similar.) HTML works because it can combine both structured and unstructured content in various ways and accept the ability to mash up different standards into one document.

In my opinion, XML will only be dead when the web has replaced HTML with JSON.

So for our APIs, let's embrace JSON -- it's small, simple, and easy to use. But when we have to collaborate on complex documents, pull information from different places, and define complex schemas to represent complex real-world concepts, let's also not forget about good old XML.


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