August 16, 2005

Applying Bray’s TPSM to Microformats

Semantic Web By: ams

Tim Bray had an (in)famous series of blog postings he called the Technology Predictor Success Matrix, or TPSM. It came up again recently in a debate over the validity of the Web2.0 moniker. I thought I should try applying it to see how Microformats might fare…

In his original series, Tim Bray evaluated 7 big winners from the last few decades of the computer industry, and 7 big losers according to 9 metrics. The only one that (IHNSHO) was a useful predictor was the 80/20 rule. Nonetheless, the complete list includes:

Compelling idea

The idea that the web is “full of data” just waiting to be harnessed by computers seems so compelling that the entire Semantic Web movement was founded on it. Tantek originally got quite a bit of mileage out of coining the term “lowercase semantic web” to explicitly signify how closely the microformats vision drafts behind the great expectations for the Semantic Web.

More specifically, however, the microformats idea is to weave semantics into ordinary web pages — using a feature primarily intended for style sheets to encode hints about meaning, too. So we can’t simply share the, say, 7/10 score of Semantic Web.

Personally, I think that Microformats comes even closer than XML ever did to the vision of “imagine a web where you could express <price> as easily as boldface. So for the idea of “semantic highlighters” — the idea that anything you can select in a browser can also be marked up as meaningful — I’d rate it a 9/10.

WWTBT? I don’t think Tim would agree — his standard for a 10/10 is AI, and a 9/10 is VRML; he’d rate even breakthrough ideas like the Web or Java in the 5-6 range because the meme is NOT possible to transmit in a few words. So perhaps I’m wildly off by conflating compelling-to-web-geeks with compelling-to-grandma. Because all of the microformats work to date is still less compelling to grandma than dragging-a-satellite-map-image around.

Technical elegance

As an advocate, I’d like to say microformats are an elegant re-imagining of the role of the CLASS, REL, and REV attributes in HTML — but it’s still a hack. Perhaps I could award a 9/10 for cleverness, but that’s not exactly the criteria. To wit: “an entry gets a ten if the inventors are up for the Turing Award; a zero goes to glue-and-string, duct tape and sweat, the things that only work despite themselves.”

Well, there’s no way a microformat’s going to win the Turing Award; it’s not even clear it could ever win the System Software Award. Heck, given the CS/AI community’s thrall to the Semantic Web, I’m not even sure a grad student should pursue a grand-unified-theory of microformats in pursuit of an Doctoral Dissertation Award (instead, look to past winners such as machine learning to translate existing XML data sets).

So, while I’d like to think microformats are elegant, I’d have to score it closer to 3/10.

WWTBT? He might rate it even lower, since an especially-important indicator of elegance for data-formats is the ease of ‘downstream’ processing. It’s spectacularly easy to ‘access’ members of a microformatted data structure for formatting using CSS selector syntax, but frankly, quite painful to do so from XPath or from the DOM. It may be unfair that so many developers have to sit down and write their own getElementsByClassName() function, but it still detracts further from microformats’ elegance score.

Standardization process

What process? No, really, just kidding. Actually, it’s significant that the microformats movement is not aligned around any existing standards body. CommerceNet, to the degree we can be helpful, provides a neutral home for it (and develops some software of its own), but is not a ‘standards body,’ if indeed it ever was one.

The social norms that have developed around microformats so far emphasize the need for research into working systems and an interest in codifying what’s common practice already. It does not pay much of a strategy tax yet, because there aren’t so many existing formats that new ones are beholden to the past. And it might be said that the whole philosophy favors ease-of-authoring over ease-of-parsing, but at least it’s open and upfront about its tastes. I’d give it a 3/10.

WWTBT? Tim quoth “Open Source should really have a question mark rather than a zero, because it’s entirely oblivious to standards, it just cares about what works” — that’s probably closer to the spirit of microformats than, say, the Semantic Web (which might be in the sixes, based solely on the profusion of specifications! 🙂

(Apparent) Return on Investment

The posited return (to readers) of investment (by writers) is that microformatted data can be reused more easily. This is certainly possible today — particularly on the Mac, where a bit of XSLT wizardry turns blogs into live calendar feeds in iCal, or exports hCards to AddressBook.

However, the ROI proposition here has two weaknesses: the costs and benefits are allocated to different actors, and many of the ‘intelligent apps’ that consume microformats don’t exist yet. [To be sure, not many exist for the Semantic Web yet, either] Since the key is the apparent ROI, I have to admit that many folks have adopted microformats for the cool-factor; or how low the “I” is (‘just tweak your templates!’) than by a compelling, documented return as yet. I’d guess it’s 3/10 as yet, but I’d hope it hits the 5/10 range of XML or the Web soon.

WWTBT? As he said of the Web: “the return on viewing everything as net-hyperlinked text through a document rendering engine was far from obvious.” I think that he might even place the ROI closer to that of SGML (1/10, in the it’s-good-for-you! eat-your-vegetables! sense). I wouldn’t be that harsh. That’s where I’d place the ROI on RDF at present 🙂 <duck/>

Management Approval and Investor Support

The main limitation to measuring approval and support from these two classes of ‘suits’ is actually being aware of this technology’s existence in the first place… In fact, we’ve done a reasonable bit of exposing the VC community to microformats (e.g. our workshop at Supernova, persuading various darling startups to adopt them); and at least the scientifically-inclined bits of Corporate America may have seen the Semantic Web piece in Scientific American. But as yet, it’s probably closer to 1/10.

WWTBT? These two predictors in particular can be accused of circular logic: these scores vary significantly across the technology adoption lifecycle. I believe his scores were for the peak of each movement, so maybe he’d cut microformats a bit more slack a few years from now…

Good Implementations and Happy Programmers

You’d think these two qualities would go together hand-in-hand, but in fact there were a few divergent cases. Not least was XML, which he gave a 9 for ready-to-ship and a 3 for fun-to-work-with. Since microformats aren’t a single monolithic technology with an accompanying test suite, it’s that much harder to claim there are good implementations out there (2/10), but there are happy hackers (4/10), and in a transparent attempt to slip in a new category, I’d venture there are happy authors, too (6/10).

WWTBT?“A zero would go to something that arrived as idea-ware and then turned out to be hard to build.” I think that he might classify microformats as closer to idea-ware than I’d be comfortable admitting — but part of the evidence of that is the movement’s self-conscious mantle of promulgating philosophy as much as specifications.

80/20 Point

And so we meander to the punchline — because while the scores haven’t been pretty so far, they’ve all been measured against factors that were largely uncorrelated with eventual success. This one proved key — whether developers could enjoy “80%” of the benefits of the technology after only the first “20%” of effort.

Early in the adoption cycle, the great appeal of microformats is how well-integrated they are with existing idioms for CSS formatting and XHTML hyperlinking. Furthermore, any author can adopt them because they’re plain, inline HTML — no fussy file attachements or external links, no separate languages to parse or scripting languages to learn.

And then there’s the ace in the hole — search engines. Unlke the early Web, this time around we already have lots of investments in scalable, publicly-available, and essentially free services that can adapt once to take advantage of microformats innovations and add value to authors overnight.

Consider the explosive growth of tagging — simply because Technorati/Del.icio.us/etc provide easy aggregation of all the other content out there that hadn’t been connected directly before. Or of vote links, or no-follow, or the XFN friend-mapper, or …

Since microformats appear to be one of those technologies that, rather annoyingly, manage to “work in practice, if not in theory,” I’d award it a 7/10. That puts it behind the stripped-down origins of the Web and the PC (10s), but just shy of SQL or XML.

WWTBT? The 80/20 Tribe’s offerings are denounced as “Just a toy!”, while they hurl back accusations of pedantry, big-system disease, and so on. Amen!

Next time, I’d like to hear back comments (by email, unfortunately), and see if we can’t tackle Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations model…

PS. For extra credit, someone might want to debate why I didn’t use hReview for this review; and if so, how exactly would I want to express this? Would I use Tim’s original posts as “tags”?

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