XML stands for Extensible Markup Language, a language developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in 1996. It’s over two decades old but it remains the basis of many technologies today.

One of its design goals is to make it easy to write programs that can read XML documents. For the most part, this has been true. However, you still need specialized knowledge to code in XML.

But first, let’s learn what is an XML file and how you can open it.

1. What is XML?

XML is a readable language by both software and humans, staying true to one of its design goals.

It’s one of the most common tools for storing and transporting content over the internet. Its main purpose is to store data, as it doesn’t do anything else.

An XML file, therefore, contains XML code. It ends with the extension “.xml.”

To better give you an idea of what it is, it’s comparable to HTML, a better-known markup language. They have a key difference, though.

HTML describes the structure of a web page and the content. On the other hand, XML describes the structure of data. Although they’re not interchangeable, they can work together.

HTML focuses on the presentation of the content, so its tags dictate how to display the data. Meanwhile, XML specifies the type of data.

XML also instead uses custom tags to define data and objects. It allows users to create markup symbols of their own as it doesn’t have a predefined markup language. This creates an unlimited and self-defining symbol set.

While it’s the standard for storing data, it’s not as popular today. However, it still has its uses, especially in legacy systems. It also remains the basis for other document formats, like the following:

This is why documents created on Microsoft Word 2007 and later have the file extension .docx. The “x” means it uses XML for its document structure. The same goes for other Office programs, like Excel (.xlsx) and Powerpoint (.pptx).

2. What Does an XML File Look Like?

XML is more of a text-based database. When you open it, it contains both plain text and tags.

The plain text is the data stored in the file.

The tags then represent the data. They tell the software what to do with the data inside.

We also have elements, which are instances of an XML tag. Like in HTML, we also have a hierarchy, so an element can also contain other elements.

As such, there’s a “root” element - the topmost one - and “child” elements.

You’ll also see that there’s an indentation for every level of element. This is more for the human user than the software. It makes it easier to read.

3. How to Open XML Files

The good news is that there are many ways to open an XML file. However, there’s a difference between viewing it and editing it.

Text Editor

You can easily view and edit an XML file format using your computer’s own text editor. Every machine usually comes with a built-in text editor, like TextEdit for Mac and Notepad for Windows.

The only problem here is that your text editor might display the text and tags without colors or indentation. As we’ve said above, every level of elements has an indentation to make it more readable. Tags usually have a color, too, to make them easy to differentiate from data.

Nonetheless, your built-in text editor makes it easy for you to view and edit XML files as needed.

Microsoft Word can also read XML files, but it poses the same problem.

These options can still be helpful if you only need a quick look at the data inside. You might want to download a specialized text editor instead.

For Mac, apps like Atom, VSCode, and Sublime Text work well. These do more than enable you to edit XML files, so they can be pretty heavy.

For Windows, Notepad++ is a great tool. It loads the proper structure, complete with colors and indentations.

If you only want to edit an XML file, use lightweight ones like gedit or Leafpad.

Web Browser

Every modern web browser is also an XML file reader. It might even be the default program for “.xml” extensions. Meaning, double-clicking the file will take you to your browser.

If that’s not the case, go to the location of your XML file, right-click on it, and choose to open using your web browser. This should open a tab right in your browser, showing plain text and XML tags. You can easily parse the content this way, and you might even be able to hide and reveal some elements.

The display isn’t as nice as what you can see on specialized tools. Still, it displays the proper structure, so it’s better than basic text editors.

However, note that you can’t edit the XML file using this method.

Online XML Editor

If you want to edit the file, you need a specialized tool, though this is pretty easy to solve. You can also use your browser for this method, but you’ll need to look for a tool online.

The good news is that you can find free XML editors online, so all you need is an internet connection. Using any tool you find, upload your XML file to reveal its contents.

Most online editors work similarly to each other. You’ll usually be able to edit it on the left side and view the hierarchy on the right side.

Most online tools have other functions, including converting it to JSON or exporting to CSV. If you want to convert an XML file to Word, you can look for online XML to Word converters.

Nonetheless, you should then be able to save your work and then download it to create a new XML file.

Learn More About XML

Although coding is best left to professionals, it’s still worth learning about what an XML file is. It helps you better understand your website and how it displays content.

It’s not as groundbreaking as modern technologies, but it’s still the foundation. It remains a crucial part of the web today.

But stop here we can show you even more techniques and tips to get work done. Feel free to read more of our guides to learn more, today.