Enthusiasm for Microformats Premature

Microformats, Out of Focus

Earlier this year I raved about Microformats here on my blog. When Tantek Çelik gave his presentation at the Future of Web Apps Conference I had numerous epiphanies. As I am want to do, I projected my ideas and envisioned how Microformats could solve several problems on the web and I came away completely enthused. On the strength of its topic alone, I felt it was the best presentation at the show.

I have since spent many hours on uf-discuss[1], and I’ve come to the conclusion that my enthusiasm for Microformats was unfortunately premature. But before explaining my concerns let me give a quick overview.

30 Second Overview of Microformats

Microformats are developed by a community process and they allow web developers to provide semantic information within an HTML 4.01 document using defined keywords in class attributes[2].  This allows software programs to extract the semantic information from the HTML much like a program could extract information out of an XML file. The following example, if included in a web page would indicate that the content on the page was licensed using Creative Commons license:

<a rel="license" href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">License</a>

This example marks up a description of the time and place for the Future of Web Apps conference I attended:

<span class="vevent">
   <a class="url" href="http://www.futureofwebapps.com/pastevents.html">
      <span class="summary">Carson Workshops' Future of Web Apps</span>
   </a> was held
   <abbr class="dtstart" title="2006-09-13">September 13</abbr>-
   <abbr class="dtend" title="2006-09-14">14</abbr>,
   at the
   <span class="location">
      The Presido's Palace of the Arts in San Francisco, California

The previous markup[3], would display as:

Carson Workshops’ Future of Web Apps was held September 13-14, 2006 at The Presido’s Palace of the Arts in San Francisco, California.

To learn more about Microformats, visit http://microformats.org.

Our Mismatched Vision

I had envisioned a community process defining specific Microformats for different vertical needs, and then web developers using these Microformats to expose extractable data in their web pages. Business partners and other interested parties could then simply scrape these structured pages to retrieve the information all without having to create a separate XML files and related navigation. This would give 80% of the benefit of the semantic web with 20% of the effort[4].

Unfortunately, the Microformat community’s vision didn’t align.

So where was the mismatch? Read on:

So, after many vision-limiting responses I’ve become both disheartened and disenchanted with Microformats, especially after I envisioned Microformats being able to solve so many real world problems.

After the letdown

After an extremely compelling vision, it’s hard to backtrack and just ignore it. But unfortunately, the Microformats community’s vision doesn’t sync with mine. Continuing to advocate for an alternate vision will likely just waste my time and certainly upset everyone on the list, so that’s not a viable option. Instead, I’ll ponder the issue, and will post again if an alternate solution presents itself.

Microformats good, just know what to expect

However, I do want to clarify that I didn’t write this to trash Microformats or Tantek or the community. I still think the Microformat concept is brilliant, even with its differing vision. I still respect Tantek and the others on the Microformat list and appreciate their efforts. And I’m still impressed by existing Microformats created by the community and would love to see them implemented on all applicable web pages.

No, I didn’t write this to trash Microformats. Instead I wrote it to inform people they should take great care in setting their expectations regarding Microformats. Otherwise they’ll go through the same cycle of elation, frustration, and then disappointment as me. And that won’t do good for anybody. And in fairness, I wrote it in small part to officially register my issues about the governance of the Microformat community.

  1. “u” is the symbol for “micro”, and “f” is the first character of “format, so “uf-discuss” if the mailing list to discuss Microformats. Get it? Uh, huh, too cute for words.
  2. The “class” attribute is the main one used by Microformats as they also use “rev” and “rel” and a few more, depending on the specific Microformat.
  3. Carson Workshops actually uses this Microformat called “hCalendar” to mark up their entire conference schedule for the next time this conference is run; you can see it here. As an aside, they had a link on their schedule page for the San Fran conference that would add the entire conference into a calendar such as Outlook. At this moment his current page doesn’t do that; why I don’t know.
  4. Please don’t debate the percentages; I was being convenient and the percentages are tangential to the point of the post. Thanks in advance for your support. :)

The Roadkill of the Web 2.0 Era!

Lately I’ve become be very interested in Web 2.0 with particular interest in Mashup development. Microformats, REST-based web services using RSS and/or Atom that empower mashup development, and Building APIs for the web. The concept that the web can finally start evolving into a programmable set of services and data instead of just electronic brochures and self-service applications really energizes me!

On the other hand, even though I am incredibly excited about this trend, I’m frustrated by how few companies are actually doing it!  Very few business people have thus far gotten that “Aha!” moment where they realize what so many technologists instinctively understand; the business benefits of opening up data and systems as web services on the Internet can be vast!

Even with such highly successful companies as Google and Yahoo freely sharing so much of their data via REST-based web services, and Amazon driving significant revenue1 from it’s pennies-per-transaction SOAP and REST-based web services, most business people I speak to either just don’t get it! Or worse, they are either scared to death of it or convinced it makes absolutely no sense!

Well all I can say is that old saw will definitely be true: “What you don’t know can hurt you!” The late majority to this game (and even some of the early majority) that continue not to get it, avoid it in fear, or just plain out deny it are going to become the Roadkill of the Web 2.0 Era

1 Significant for such an early stage

Microformats: hCard

One of the things I learned more about at The Future of Web Apps was Microformats.  The talk on Microformats was given by Tantek Çelik who is CTO of Technorati and it was easily one of the more interesting concepts covered at the conference (to me, at least.) I probably appreciated it so much because Microformats potentially solve so many different problems that I have been pondering of late.

I had previously heard about , but I didn’t quite grok how cool they were until Tantek’s presentation.

Anyway below is my hCard, assuming I did it correctly. If anyone knows how to tell, I appreciate it you could let me know if it is correct and if not, why not (Note: I used hCard creator but I added a URL to "org" and I also put "(w)" and "(c)" after my phone numbers and I don’t know if that is kosher.)



Atlanta, Georgia  USA

404-474-8948 (w)
404-276-1276 (c)

This created with the hCard creator.