Tribute to Yuri Rubinsky:
SGML and the man
Portrait of Yuri Rubinsky "There is no point in storing anything unless you can find it again, in its most useful component elements, ready to be re-purposed. There is a danger in allowing your most valuable asset - the 90% of your information that is in documents - to be locked away in proprietary, unmanaged, unmanageble electronic formats. Luckily, SGML provides an internationally standardized, vendor-supported, multi-purpose, independent way of doing business. If you aren't using it today, you will be next year."
-- Yuri Rubinsky, 1994
Ian F. Darwin
Remarks delivered
January 23, 1996
Photo by the author

It is almost exactly ten years from the time Yuri Rubinsky first entered my home, to hire me for his then-unknown software company, to the time he left this world, so unexpectedly, a few days ago. I am privileged to have known this man for the last decade of his life.

I will not talk of his many other achievements, such as his rôle in founding the Banff Publishing Workshop, or publishing the first book ever released concurrently in print and Braille from a single electronic manuscript. Others are better able to enumerate these, and so brevity urges me to talk of the Yuri I knew at SoftQuad.

During the early days of the company, we worked on the old sqtroff product line, which never made it into the Wall Street Journal but did keep us barely alive for a while. Yuri had the sense and the vision to look beyond the day-to-day struggle, to work towards a dream of SGML as a universal language for document portability. He got us onto the road we now travel by - to the dismay of the then-current board of directors, and many of us at the time - setting up a stranger in an office in Vancouver to build a new product for us. That stranger was an old buddy of his from his Architecture days named Peter Sharpe, and the product was Author/Editor.

But the product was not enough, even though Yuri knew it would become the right product. He had to work on a million committees, and chair the GCA's annual SGML conference, to boost SGML and to carve out a market for it. He worked hard to ensure that SGML would be viewed as a structure for open documents and open information. The endless conferences and meetings were to make up a large part of his last few years Some achievements in this area stand out:

The SGML Primer is under two score pages, but it describes the essentials of SGML in simple yet accurate language. I can not count the number of people to whom this has served as a starting point, and as a place to refer back to for terminology.

SGML Open is an industry cooperative. Imagine if Microsoft, IBM, Sun and HP decided to work together to promote the use of computers, while still competing on features. This is what SMGL Open does in the SGML world, and some of the rivalries are not less intense, if not writ as large. But SGML Open works, and Yuri was its founding chairman.

The SGML World Tour CD was a major effort on the part of the entire SGML community, and many people at SoftQuad - you know who you are. But Yuri was the eye of the hurricane, drawing contributions out from his many contacts, urging us on, and writing large parts of the text at the last minute.

The SGML Handbook, written by Dr. Charles Goldfarb, was edited and typeset by Yuri. While there are now several good tutorial books in the field, the Handbook is the definitive reference work on SGML itself. And, without wishing to demean Dr. Goldfarb, it is a much better book for Yuri's labours.

Author/Editor program has achieved considerable success on its own. But with the arrival of the World Wide Web, with its HTML based on SGML, Yuri and others in the company realized the need for a specialized version of Author/Editor, and so we produced a new offspring, or sibling, which came to be called HoTMetaL.

And, to ensure that SGML was not limited to HTML, he launched an entire initiative with the NCSA, known as "SGML On The Web", and involved "the Hasse connection" - Synex - to build a Web Browser specifically for viewing SGML.

But he was no less active on the inside of the company. When not at one of those many meetings, he was always available to talk about ideas, or SGML. Though he never put it in so many words, it seems to me that these precepts embodied Yuri's view for the soul of his company:

Do right - he believed in behaving ethically, and I never heard him ask even one of his employees to behave otherwise. Customers, employees, and shareholders alike were to be treated fairly and with respect.

Have fun - he wanted SoftQuad to be an enjoyable place to work, where talented people would be able to work on projects that interested them, while serving the customer.

Make money - like any business. And I am glad to say that he did live long enough to see us do so, as well as having established a corporate culture conducive to the first two goals.

I hold in my hand a CD-ROM with all the UNIX versions of HoTMetal PRO. Yuri always wanted our software to be widely available to everybody, not just the MS-Windows majority, and I know he'd be proud of this CD-ROM. Needless to say I used the software that's on it to edit and print these remarks.

Yuri's name may not be as well-known as it should be, and as it certainly is among those who knew him. The many thousands who download HoTMetaL, buy HoTMetaL PRO, or use Panorama to view SGML on the Web may never see his name. The people in France who will never have to worry about proprietary document formats because they are using SGML, the mechanics in Sweden and the United States who have ready access to maintenance information, the visually-disadvantaged people around the world who have access to a wider range of Braille material due to his work on ICADD, and so many others whose lives his work touched, may not know or remember his name. But they can not escape the influence of his dreams, his decisions, and his dedication. It is for us, so suddenly left behind, to live up to the standards he set, to keep the company he founded moving along the path he set for us, and to keep him alive in our hearts and in our minds. We must keep alive not just his vision of how computers should always provide open information formats, but our memory of Yuri Rubinsky, the man, the SGML expert, the company leader, and our friend.

Historical note: Despite massive contracts with the US Defence and Automotive industries, SGML never achieved the world domination that Yuri hoped for, in its own form. However, two particular SGML applications did: HTML and XML.

See also Robin Cover's collected tributes to Yuri.