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, 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. 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 </span>. </span>
The previous markup, 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.
Unfortunately, the Microformat community’s vision didn’t align.
So where was the mismatch? Read on:
- I assumed that the Microformat community would need to grow.
- I envisioned Microformats addressing vertical and vendor-specific needs.
That wasn’t their vision.
- I had use-cases for non-visible Microformats.
They felt non-visible data wasn’t worth their time to address.
- I believed Microformat’s lack of resolution mechanisms would result in naming conflicts in the wild.
They didn’t share my concerns.
- Many people thought there was a large number of interoperable Microformats would be beneficial.
They defined Microformats differently.
- Another believes (as do I) that the process should incorporate externally developed Microformats.
They vetoed such inclusion.
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.
- “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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. :)