GEDCOM 5.5.1 is 15 years old today

GEDCOM is the de facto genealogy data exchange standard.
The mainstream version is GEDCOM 5.5.1, with some vendors still using GEDCOM 5.5.

Some people maintain that GEDCOM 5.5 is the current standard, and version 5.5.1 is just a draft, because FamilySearch says so, but that is a naïve view, and not just because all leading genealogy software vendors have been using GEDCOM 5.5.1 for years. Actions speak louder than words, and FamilySearch’s actions leave no doubt; GEDCOM 5.5.1 isn’t a draft, and never was a draft. FamilySearch merely told everyone it is a draft that should not be implemented, while they themselves hurried to have it implemented in their own desktop application…

GEDCOM 5.5 was released on 31 December 1995. GEDCOM 5.5.1 was released on 2 October 1999. That is 15 years ago today. The current version of GEDCOM is 15 years old now!


Fifteen years is a long time in the software industry.
GEDCOM 5.5 is older than USB and PNG (1996), older than Google (1998), and the Microsoft IntelliMouse (1999). GEDCOM 5.5.1 predates XHTML (2000), Windows XP and Mac OS X (2001), Facebook (2004), twitter (2006), the Apple iPhone (2007), Dropbox, Evernote, Google Chrome and Android (2008), and the Apple iPad (2010).
GEDCOM 5.5.1 is older than MacFamilyTree (1998), MyHeritage and RootsMagic (2003), (2006), New Family Tree Maker (2007), MyBlood (2009), Chronoplex My Family Tree (2011) and Behold 1.0 (2012). GEDCOM 5.5.1 is older than all genealogy APIs, all mobile genealogy apps and cross-platform genealogy syncing technology.


The GEDCOM 5.6 specification is dated 18 Dec 2000, but it was never publicly released. Until the publication of the GEDCOM 5.6 article early in 2011, most genealogy software developers did not even know it existed. For more than a decade, its existence was practically a secret.
Once you know that its internal title (Document Properties) is GEDCOM 5.5.2 with XML, it does not surprise that the difference with GEDCOM 5.5.1 is so minimal that there is no reason to use GEDCOM 5.6 instead of 5.5.1. Genealogy software vendors who know about GEDCOM 5.6 are ignoring it just as much as vendors who don’t know about it.


The W3C started work on XML in 1996 and introduced XML version 1.0 (First Edition) in 1998. There was much buzz around XML in its early years, with many organisation creating XML-based versions of new and existing standards.

The overview of GEDCOM alternatives shows how many GEDCOM alternatives have been introduced since GEDCOM 5.5 and 5.5.1. Many of these are based on XML.


Michael Kay proposed GedML, an XML-based version of GEDCOM in 1998. GedML is the second GEDCOM alternative. The first is InterGED, later known as Event GEDCOM, proposed in 1994 by CommSoft, creators of Roots and Visual Roots, which, after being bought by Palladium, became Ultimate Family Tree and Family Gathering.

Dynas-Tree, developed by Gerhard Bauch, was probably the first program to provide export to GedML. Dynas-Tree is no longer being developed, but Dirk Böttcher’s Ahnenblatt will also export to GedML.
Confusingly, the briefly available It’s Our Tree Home Edition, later renamed to DynasTree Home Edition, is not related to Dynas-Tree, but is in fact a lite edition of Ahnenblatt.


The GEDCOM 5.6 specifications contains GEDXML, a GEDCOM alternative. GEDXML is the GEDCOM lineage-linked form in XML, and it is practically identical to Michael Kay’s GedML.
That does not imply that FamilySearch adopted GedML. FamilySearch did not make GEDCOM 5.6 public, but decided to abandon both GEDCOM and GEDXML, to develop the considerably more ambitious GEDCOM XML.


FamilySearch made a lot of noise about GEDCOM XML. The public GEDCOM XML draft (2001) and a GEDCOM XML Beta (2002) were widely discussed, and not just within the genealogy community.

FamilySearch’s GEDCOM XML even made the front page of Microsoft’s MSDN Magazine. The May 2004 issue contains XML Data Migration Case Study: GEDCOM, by Aaron Skonnard, author of several XML books published by Addison-Wesley.
It discusses how to convert GEDCOM 5.5 into GEDCOM XML using the XML classes in the Microsoft .NET Framework, using an intermediate XML format (GedML/GEDXML), complete with C# sample code.
After the release of the GEDCOM XML Beta, FamilySearch grew silent about GEDCOM XML. As time went by, it became apparent that FamilySearch had abandoned GEDCOM XML.
Ahnenblatt will export data to GEDCOM XML, but not import from it.


Early in 2011, word leaked out that FamilySearch was working on SORD, and late in 2011, GEDCOM X was revealed. Like GEDCOM XML, FamilySearch GEDCOM X is an XML-based format. Just as with GEDCOM XML, the name is misleading; GEDCOM X isn’t GEDCOM at all, but yet another GEDCOM alternative.
Mid 2012, FamilySearch released a GEDCOM to GEDCOM X converter, but it only converts part of the data, and still doesn’t convert from GEDCOM X to GEDCOM at all.

Many did not see FamilySearch’s attempt at yet another genealogy data format as a response to any other GEDCOM alternatives, but as a response to the creation of independent industry standardisation groups in 2010.
The history of GEDCOM X does not start in 2011, it goes back to 2008 or earlier; comments in the GEDCOM X source code imply that GEDCOM X is part of a Data Framework project inside of FamilySearch, which has been going on for an unknown length of time.
The decision to publish part of that Data Framework, and publish it as GEDCOM X seems to have been prompted by the standardisation efforts, and the GEDCOM X about page practically confirms that.

Up through 2010, FamilySearch had been busy with other important things, like online access to their huge collection of records. But around 2010 a lot of notable events–including the sprouting of some impressive standardization efforts–came together to raise the priority of a new GEDCOM.

FamilySearch opened up the GEDCOM X site early in 2012, during a presentation by Jay Verkler. In that presentation, Verkler claimed that FamilySearch and others are working on GEDCOM X, yet in all the years since his claim, no third-party vendors have come forward expressing support for GEDCOM X.

The GEDCOM X site originally positioned GEDCOM X as the new industry standard, but that did not last long. In August of 2012, FamilySearch admitted that GEDCOM X is not vendor neutral, but that supporting FamilySearch Family Tree (FSFT), their own product, is the only real GEDCOM X requirement. Soon thereafter, FamilySearch changed the positioning of GEDCOM X from industry standard to open source project.

OpenGen, BetterGEDCOM, FHISO

OpenGen and BetterGEDCOM both formed in 2010 with the goal of creating a new standard for genealogy. OpenGen is no more, and the rather informal BetterGEDCOM morphed into FHISO, a formal organisation.

Although the creation of FHISO happened upon the instigation FamilySearch, FamilySearch still isn’t a FHISO member, yet has submitted a paper proposing that FHISO rubberstamp GEDCOM X.
Current FHISO members include, RootsMagic, WikiTree, ourFamily•ology, Calico Pie (maker of Family Historian), Coret Genealogie (owner of Genealogie Online), the American Federation of Genealogical Societies, the Federation of Family History Societies, DC Thomson Family History (formerly brightsolid) and Eneclann.

After the mid 2013 announcement of Drew Smith as FHISO chair, FHISO seemed dormant for more than a year, as there was no news at all. In August of 2014, FHISO announced that technical work would begin, and published the standards-setting process they’re going to use.

changed world

In the few decades since GEDCOM was first introduced the world has changed and genealogy applications have changed with it. In the early years of Personal Ancestral File (PAF), people used many PAF utilities to do things PAF did not do yet, and those utilities read and write PAF files directly. After the introduction of GEDCOM (and a few file format changes that obsoleted old utilities), practically all remaining utilities were reading and writing GEDCOM files.

However, just like say Microsoft Word reads WordPerfect files, leading genealogy application do read each other’s data files directly. That is not only a competitive advantage because direct import is easier to use, it also means you can transfer data without using GEDCOM.
Practically all genealogy hosting sites let you upload a GEDCOM, but several major sites let you upload data directly from your desktop application, no GEDCOM required. Vendors are replacing the upload functionality with synchronisation functionality, and a few vendors now offer multi-platform applications that synchronise your data between all the platforms – no GEDCOM required.

Vendors are not only adding application features that obviate the need for GEDCOM,
they are also adding features that require GEDCOM extensions.
Sometimes they choose to use the same obvious extension as other vendors, sometimes (GEDCOM EL) vendors cooperate to create a common set extension, but often they do they their own thing. Some vendors try to support third party GEDCOM extensions on import, but many do not.
In the case of citation templates, the vendor-specific extensions are not only substantial but also substantially different from one another. Users who try take advantage of the current vendor-specific implementations of citation templates, experience a mild case of vendor lock-in (that other data still transfers fine isn’t good enough), something a standard data exchange format and it extensibility are supposed to prevent.


Five days from now, a panel of experts will opine on these matters in the Gaenovium 2014 Panel Discussion: Current & Future Genealogical Exchange Standards.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>