By Michael Riley
If you recall my review of the previous release of XMetaL you'll note that I am a bit more upbeat about Corel's newest release of the product. Although not every deficiency has been addressed in this fourth version, it comes closer to appealing both to the user and developer audiences. Recognizing that both populations are unique in their daily execution of the product, XMetaL 4 is decoupled into Author, ActiveX, Developer, and the server-based XMetaL Central components. The Developer edition includes all these pieces as well as ActiveX, Java, and Visual Studio .NET examples.
XMetaL Author is the prominent business-user front-end editor that retains its interface from the previous release. Shortcomings in the older version, such as lack of XML Schema support, thankfully have been rectified in the Author version. Other incremental improvements including easy macro recording, improved CALS and HTML table editing, CSS editing views, XSL editing, full Unicode support, and WebDAV support also have been integrated into the product. Like previous versions, Author emulates Microsoft Word in its unobtrusive and straightforward approach to collecting and formatting user data. The package includes support for revision marks, color coding, highlighting, font manipulation, tag aliasing (which is the ability to translate or expand element names within the same language and is useful for multilanguage document and schema constructions), spellchecking, and a thesaurus that uses either Word or Corel's WordPerfect keyboard and menu conventions.
XMetaL Developer is the IDE portion of the product that uses COM and Java connectors to help customize and integrate Author into sophisticated Content Management Systems (CMS) back ends such as Documentum and Interwoven. Developer includes the ActiveX components that extend Author's feature set into legacy COM languages as well as bridge into Visual Studio .NET's environment via project templates. These templates actually run as CSS-enabled forms within the VS .NET IDE and can provide additional schema-specific customization of document elements via Developer's Customization dialog box.
One minor annoyance with any externally instantiated application using Author's ActiveX controls is an OLE automation-like holdover from the past: Author launches by default and remains visible whenever its ActiveX objects are created, often adding additional clutter and confusion on the desktop. Naturally, this means you can't deploy custom solutions without ensuring a fully installed licensed copy of Author is running on the client's system. What makes up for this detraction is the fact that the controls expose more than 300 interfaces to Author's library of functions, giving considerable flexibility to most developers' custom solutions. The COM objects also have been designed to support the Windows Scripting Host (WSH) for rapid prototyping or scripted macro-building needs. And because Developer provides hooks into the VS .NET environment, you can debug these scripts easily within the .NET IDE.
To help complete the XML integration puzzle, Corel also separately offers XMetaL Central. Central is an XML server-side manager that facilitates the deployment, maintenance, and version control of XMetaL-customized applications using SOAP as the primary distribution protocol. The manager is exposed via a browser-based console that exposes functionality based on user authentication levels (administrator and/or developer privileges), and it provides author rights for document and package assets. Packages can contain program preferences, macros, DTDs, schemas, and other files, and you can create, modify, or delete it easily. Thus, if the XMetaL Developer product is adopted aggressively in an enterprise scenario, Central is practically a shoo-in; Central is to Developer what Visual SourceSafe is to Visual Studio.
Although Corel certainly has stepped up to the plate in the game for XML document management supremacy within the corporate arena, it arrives at a time when Microsoft's own interpretation might quickly squelch the static electricity Corel is hoping to generate. XML-native features such as InfoPath in the next version of Office coupled with Sharepoint potentially could match and, in some instances, exceed what Corel's approach offers. And because XMetaL 4 Developer is still a Windows-native application, it falters on what could have been an advantage in the battle for XML structured document supremacy in the corporate environment. With that caveat, I recommend Corel's current version to those developers seeking a proven, relatively stable incumbent that either must make a decision today or have migrated already to Corel's previous XMetaL product (formerly by SoftQuad). For those who still have a few more months to debate, I recommend waiting for Microsoft's next release of Office Developer to see if it's worth upgrading your user base to Microsoft's interpretation of the XML document world.