In this paper we have introduced an XML update to diff3 which we have called diff3x. With diff3x, we can integrate more modern structure-aware comparison tools and represent choices that are consistent with the structure and more likely to provide well-formed or valid results.

We have considered the representation of nested changes but concluded that the additional complexity to the diff3x format is unlikely to be worth the small gain.

The diff3x format can take plain text as its payload. If the payload is XML it would need to be escaped for example with CDATA and treated as text. We considered whether, if the payload is also XML, this could be treated as XML and although this is possible we concluded that treating an XML payload as text has the advantage that tag changes and attribute changes can be represented directly in situ. Our experience with XML tools and technologies has allowed us to develop XML-centric resolvers, but these have the limitation that they do not work with JSON and other non-XML formats. They still have benefits and their applications, for example when considering nested change or n-way merge. As such they complement the benefits of diff3x.

In a related paper [5] we identified some issues in version control systems that caused inconsistency and confusion to users. One solution to those issues relies on separating the merge driver from subsequent conflict resolution tools or 'merge tools'. The diff3x format proposed here would work well for data exchange between these two steps. This is important because it separates knowledge of the format and structure of a file from a GUI designed to allow the acceptance of changes or the resolution of conflict thus enabling a single GUI to handle many different file structures in a consistent way.

The intention of diff3x is to provide a richer format than diff3 for the exchange of differences and conflicts in text files. The advantages of diff3x over diff3 include the following:

  1. Recording user selections of options: this provides both the facility to save changes during a merge resolution session and providing an audit record of the choices made.

  2. Connected options: this provides the ability for the selection of one option to trigger the selection of another connected option, e.g. when a start tag is selected the corresponding end tag is also included.

  3. Auto include of text: this provides for certain text to be automatically included if certain options are selected, e.g. so that appropriate separators could be included.

We have shown that improvements to the representation of change for structured data is possible and desirable. Changing the existing diff3 format proved to be awkward and limited, so this move directly to a markup representation using XML is a better approach. In working this through in more detail in this paper we have identified other advantages to make it easier for users to accept or reject changes in a way that is consistent with the underlying structure of the data.