Analysis of JSON use cases compared to XML


Before there was either XML or JSON there was EDI. JSON is very reminiscent of EDI, both syntactically and conceptually, and that the claims made back then as to why EDI would be sustained over XML. EDI was lightweight, human readable, fast to process, compact and worked well with existing systems exchanges and interfaces and had a dedicated following of advocates. But EDI has significant flaws, it is brittle, difficult to extend and has weak data typing, content validation and rendering support. Also semantics in EDI are very limited and rely on external referenced specifications with local human knowledge that is notoriously difficult to align across implementations. Particularly code lists value sets and cross field content validation rules were especially problematic for EDI.

Moving past these limitations standards setting organizations have adopted XML technologies as the primary toolset in defining information exchange specifications. Further more there is an extensive family of XML technologies that support the complete ecosystem of semantics and particularly the need for interoperability, security and common meaning and rules. The diagram here illustrates that.

Figure 1 – Information Exchange Conceptual Components

Referencing this diagram, JSON is restricted to the Structure and Content capabilities. XML on the other hand provides the ability to handle rich exchanges where all the aspects shown can be managed. In today's challenging commercial and government information sharing world you must have the complete set of robust capabilities available.

The JSON primary use case

JSON is designed for web client interfaces to web services on the internet. Essentially it is serialized Javascript objects which makes it a strong fit for web browser native client side scripting that all the major web browsers provide.

While XML does not fit as well for that scenario there are many equivalent solutions using different interfacing in the browser such as Adobe Flash, Microsoft InfoPath, Oracle ADF, or open source solutions such as Netbeans forms that are using XML. One advantage of these is the “write once” approach and deploy anywhere to tablet, smart phone, or web browser.

XML and JSON Performance Analysis

The presumptions of how slow and resource-demanding "Fat” XML is compared to JSON’s lightweight payload do not hold up to a test. An experiment with 33 different documents and almost 1200 tests on the most commonly used browsers and operating systems found the performance for the total user experience, (transfer, parsing and querying of a document), to be nearly identical for both XML and JSON formats.

Clearly this shows that you should perform experiments, test your own data and code with your own users and devices to determine real results. What "seems obvious" is not always true.

Selection of useful links of peoples opinions and thoughts

We present here a selection of “what does the internet think?” resources to show the context to the use of JSON and insights into processing and handling content in a web browser delivery context.

Broad Discussions

Landscape and Performance Comparisons

"We are conducting an experiment in XML and JSON performance in browsers and would appreciate anyone with a couple minutes to spare to visit this website and push one button. (the results will be analysed and published - at this coming Balisage 2013)



JSON and Security

Summary and Conclusions

Number one thing to notice here is you are reading this document and it is being delivered and rendered to your computer screen using XML, RSS and xhtml and not JSON.

Back in the day when XML was brand new, Bill Gates held a press conference to announce that Microsoft would be adopting XML wholesale for use across its products and Windows operating system. This tells us that XML is ubiquitous and extensible (that is in its name). There is now a huge number of XML based standards in a family of solutions that support all aspects of the needs of information exchange. In today's challenging world you cannot just discount those as unnecessary.

When you look at information exchanges the diagram provided in the introduction section above it shows the complete ecosystem of components that you need for effective consistent, trusted, predictable, reusable and extensible information flows. Also we can see that JSON is missing key delivery control and semantic pieces and thus JSON has a very limited mission profile. Within that profile when fit-to-purpose it can be effective, but as a general solution it does not meet all the extended requirements.

Clearly JSON has its niche following and will continue to serve that for its primary use case of web based point client-server information exchanges. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Having lightweight alternative solutions is perfectly acceptable for a lot of content delivery circumstances.

People should not confuse business operational convenience with overall applicability - e.g. Twitter and FourSquare dropping XML and relying solely on JSON. Both of these services use simplistic formats totally under their sole edict that are unlikely to change in the future. Also there are competitive reasons, JSON actually can make it harder with its limited semantics for competitive sites to harvest then analyze and reuse and republish their content.

As a technology XML continues to improve and its use is being better optimized and refined, with tooling support that is narrowing the gap in areas where JSON claims to have the technical edge today. Specifically we can point to Oracle's work on Open Data APIs using Open-XDX that supports both XML and JSON outputs. And the CAM templates approach with NIEM that comes with that and enables content providers to rapidly build working web services and user form interfaces from SQL data stores.

In short we can expect to see both XML and JSON to continue to fulfill information delivery needs going forward but the differentiations are likely to blur. Neither one is going to displace the other in core areas of use. Providing the capability to use and support both is not a significant burden and thus meets personal preferences and local project nuances.

To get a sense for all this as a brief real time interactive example you can try these two live demonstration service points.

This one is using XML when you click here. And this one is doing the same thing (its actually the same Open-XDX service component) but returns JSON instead when you click here.

And if you visit you can find more Open-XDX examples and details.


Table produced by JSON advocates to support JSON adoption






XML is simpler than SGML

JSON is much simpler than XML. JSON has a much smaller grammar and maps more directly onto the data structures.

Simplicity is deceptive. XML can easily be used as simply as JSON syntactically. But simplicity comes at the price of ignoring many common more robust information sharing needs in an extended network – rather than just point-to-point.

The mapping referenced here is for objects within a JavaScript environment only. Outside of that context this is not so. All major programming environments have robust XML support.


XML is extensible because it is a mark-up language

JSON is not extensible because it does not need to be. JSON is not a document markup language, so it is not necessary to define new tags or attributes to represent data in it.

This is a naïve view. Things change constantly with new information sharing needs. Particularly as more participants are added to exchanges and standards evolve. Only in limited cases such as Twitter can we see set formats.


XML is an interoperability standard.

JSON has the same interoperability potential as XML.

JSON clearly has significant limitations and gaps with regard to information semantics and reuse.


XML is an open standard

JSON is at least as open as XML, perhaps more so because it is not in the center of corporate/political standardization struggles.

This is a highly subjective statement. XML has proven to be universally adopted and implemented not just in software but firmware devices and communications systems. Notice the JSON work is not immune from manipulation as anything else as happened with JavaScript itself.

Human Readable

XML is human readable

JSON is much easier for human to read than XML. It is easier to write, too. It is also easier for machines to read and write.

Again this is an entirely subjective statement. Markup is markup there is no “easier” here. Machines have no notion of “easier”. The notion of “easier to read” and presumably comprehend the meaning of is notoriously hard to define.

Exchange Formats

XML can be used as an exchange format to enable users to move their data between similar applications

The same is true for JSON


However XML also has security and other capabilities that are absent from JSON.


XML provides a structure to data so that it is richer in information

The same is true for JSON.

However XML can provide deeper structuring than JSON supports. It can also handle more extended content types.


XML is easily processed because the structure of the data is simple and standard.

JSON is processed more easily because its structure is simpler.

Again this is entirely subjective. See the link provided in the links section on machine timings testing.

Code Re-invention

There is a wide range of reusable software available to programmers to handle XML so they don't have to re-invent code

JSON, being a simpler notation, needs much less specialized software

JSON is mainly available in JavaScript and not in a wide range of programming environments. Further it is not the simplicity of the syntax, it is the drastically reduced capabilities. Hence JSON only provides very limited functionality.

XML separates the presentation of data from the structure of that data.

XML requires translating the structure of the data into a document structure.

JSON structures are based on arrays and records.

This is only in the context of the data within a web browser memory. Whereas XML is the native format that underpins the spreadsheets, databases and array stores that JSON content must ultimately be persisted to and from!

A common exchange format

XML is a better document exchange format. Use the right tool for the right job.

JSON is a better data exchange format.

Again this is entirely subjective and no metrics are being given here. What defines “better”? Clearly JSON is significantly less capable and restricted in it use cases. Therefore “your mileage may vary in actual use” would be an appropriate caution here when trying to measure what is “better” where and how.

Data Views

XML displays many views of one data

JSON does not provide any display capabilities because it is not a document markup language.

XML has broader applicability. Therefore you can write once, use everywhere. While JSON can expect to be changed into XML for such extended uses.

Self-Describing Data

This is a key XML design objective.

XML and JSON have this in common.

However XML has richer semantics available than JSON.

Complete integration of all traditional databases and formats

(Statements about XML are sometimes given to a bit of hyperbole.) XML documents can contain any imaginable data type - from classical data like text and numbers, or multimedia objects such as sounds, to active formats like Java applets or ActiveX components.

JSON does not have a <[CDATA[]]> feature, so it is not well suited to act as a carrier of sounds or images or other large binary payloads. JSON is optimized for data.

Visual content is data! Ask the FBI analyzing the recent Boston attacks. One could also say that JSON is limited to only simple basic data content and lacks extended validation such as code values, date and number formatting.


XML and JSON both use Unicode.

XML and JSON both use Unicode.

However JSON has limitations in its use of encoding and exchanges.

Open and extensible

XML’s one-of-a-kind open structure allows you to add other state-of-the-art elements when needed. They can always adapt your system to embrace industry-specific vocabulary.

Those vocabularies can be automatically converted to JSON, making migration from XML to JSON very straightforward.

Exactly, if you have XML it is trivial to generate JSON. The reverse is not the case however.


XML is easily readable by both humans and machines

JSON is easier to read for both humans and machines

This is an entirely subjective statement. The better answer is that well written XML and JSON are equivalent for human and machine handling.


XML is document-oriented.

JSON is data-oriented. JSON can be mapped more easily to object-oriented systems.

The reverse is an issue however, objects do not necessarily map easily to documents. Plus not all content is objects; it actually constrains the use model. XML on the other hand is well equipped for use as object-oriented content as well as documents.


XML is being widely adopted by the computer industry

JSON is just beginning to become known. Its simplicity and the ease of converting XML to JSON make JSON ultimately more adoptable.

The use of JSON is limited to web client-server scenarios. Within that domain it is popular. Outside of that domain XML completely dominates.


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Not all XML is created equal. XML Orb looks at the challenges of creating information exchanges with XML and NIEM and how this can be made simpler, comprehensible, consistent and reliable.


« July 2016