Paul Ford wrote a compelling vision two years ago:
The Marketplace Manager, or MM, looked like a regular spreadsheet and allowed you to list information about yourself, what you wanted to sell, what you wanted to buy, and so forth. MM was essentially an “logical statement editor,” disguised as a spreadsheet. People entered their names, addresses, and other relevant information about themselves, then they entered what they were selling, and MM saved RDF-formatted files to the server of their choice – and sent a “ping” to Google which told the search engine to update their index.
When it came out, the MM was a little bit magical. Let’s say you wanted to sell a book. You entered “Book” in the category and MM queried the Open Product Taxonomy, then came back and asked you to identify whether it was a hardcover book, softcover, used, new, collectible, and so forth. The Open Product Taxonomy is a structured thesaurus, essentially, of product types, and it’s quickly becoming the absolute standard for representing products for sale.
Then you enter an ISBN number from the back of the book, hit return, and the MM automatically fills in the author, copyright, number of pages, and a field for notes – it just queries a server for the RDF, gets it, chews it up, and gives it to you. If you were a small publishing house, you could list your catalog. If you had a first edition Grapes of Wrath you could describe it and give it a lowest acceptable price, and it’d appear in Google Auctions. Most of the smarts in the MM were actually on the server, as Google interpreted what was entered and adapted the spreadsheet around it. If you entered car, it asked for color. If you entered wine, it asked for vintage, vineyard, number of bottles. Then, when someone searched for 1998 Merlot, your bottle was high on the list.
Now imagine taking that vision — and decentralizing it… that would assuage some of Paul Ford’s fears:
See, I get worried about Google. They’re beginning to control a space that is essential for open dissemination of information. So far they have only demonstrated excellent intentions, but the invisible hand of the market is quite a thing, and you often find it stuck right up your ass, or in your pocket looking for your wallet. Google is there to make money. There is nothing evil about that, but corporate money making is not necessarily in the people’s interests, and even companies that appear to have great intentions are forced to make difficult decisions that ultimately screw the consumer. When companies have power – and Google is getting real power over the way that information is disseminated – they need to be watched carefully.
Not that Google isn’t sweet.
In some ways I wish there was an effort to create a P2P hugely-scaleable redundant spidering tool – exactly what Google has, but with a few million nodes on shared computers. Even better, if I could run an indexing algorithm against my own site, store the data locally, and report an overview (word list) via metadata – well, that would be snazzy, if a bit difficult to implement. Then, every relevant query via the P2P-based search mechanism could query my local server for full results…
I’m telling you, if you’d only listen, that spreadsheets are important to the future of the Internet. Not the gunky ones we have now, but super-futuristic ultra-spreadsheets. Say I wanted to sell my books, and put an ISBN number into a spreadsheet, and then applied a Semantic Web-based function. So I have ISBN 2884838483, and I enter item.book.isbn(2884838483) as the function. This goes out talks to the Library of Congress, which spits back a nice MARC record, and an XSLT script converts that an RDF descriptions according to the Open Products Hierarchy, and fills in title, author, publisher, number of pages, just like that in the spreadsheet. And each of those items can be related to other information, because there’s a standard way to define data interchange (XML) and the actual structure of the data (RDF). Web-as-spreadsheet is fun to think about, I swear.