More on Microformats

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Kevin Marks says in the comments to my last post that my example of how a format designed for both machine and human readability might run into problems was a little contrived. My dear Mr. Marks how silly of you to say so. I must vehemently disagree with your lack of insight. That example was a lot contrived. I blame Jet Lag for the lack of a better example, but the point that I was trying to make (albeit unconvincingly), is that...

A format designed for both data exchange and data presentation cannot excel at both.

Keep in mind that this doesn’t necessarily mean that Microformats cannot do well enough for both tasks. I am simply attempting to examine the consequences of using Microformats over other approaches.

There are three particular areas in which I see significant differences between a data interchange format and a presentation format.

  1. Presentation
  2. Authoring
  3. Consumption

Presentation

Suppose you have a large set of data to send from one machine to another. Perhaps the statistical summaries for every soccer game played in a given month. Since we’re playing make believe here, also assume you’ve chosen XML as the format to represent that data. Are you concerned about the fact that the receiving machine is going to suffer from sensory overload trying to making sense such a large set of data?

Probably not.

When you choose a format designed for data interchange, you typically have no problems sending the entire data set. Machines don’t generally suffer from sensory overload.

But if you take the same set of data and want to present it to a human (using say, (X)HTML), you’d probably want to break it up into multiple pages, perhaps one per day, since that would be more readable for your soccer afficionado than simply cramming everything on one page (though many would-be web designers have committed such a crime in the past). Unlike machines, we humans do suffer from sensory overload.

Now it certainly is possible to send the entire data set to the browser and use DOM manipulation via Javascript to simulate paging, but that seems like a hack to me. First of all, why not do the simplest thing that works? It makes more sense to send only the data needed. Secondly, if you need to use DOM manipulation to present the data well, it just reinforces the idea that the format is not good for presentation.

Authoring

Have you ever written poetry? And no, I am not referring to your code, though I do see code as poetry at times. The difference between code and poetry is that there are no strict rules to poetry. Certainly there are some rules to some forms of poetry, but the only standard rule of poetry is that to make great poetry, you have to break the rules.

Now how many machines do you know of that appreciate poetry (If you know of one, let’s talk). Probably not any at this point in time. This is due to the fact that computers cannot understand free form input. They require input formatted accordirng to very precise rules. This is one of the difficulties inherent in having a human author create content using aformat for data interchange, humans in general are not precise enough. Let me give you a more concrete example.

XHTML attempts to merge the presentation format of HTML with the data interchange format for XML. In many ways, this is a praiseworthy goal as consuming (we’ll get to that) XML is much easier than HTML. And, XML is easy to validate as it has very strict rules. Unfortunately, strict is not something humans do well.

I spent some time not too long ago attempting to make my blog XHTML 1.0 Transitional compliant. I succeeded in getting the front page to validate, but would often post content that would break validation. Imagine how bad it would be if I allowed HTML comments from visitors.

Now suppose I am writing a blog entry where I want to add a microformatted item in my blog entry. There are an infinite number of ways I could make a mistake and thus render the microformat useless and unreadable by a machine. Writing for machines takes a lot of discipline (think programmer), and humans don’t naturally do it well. We require debuggers, compilers, unit tests, etc....

As you read this, you’re probably thinking that better tools will ameliorate this problem, and you are probably right. When such tools appear, they may make this point somewhat obsolete. But I still want to contrast this approach to how my RSS feed is authored. I simply post content to my blog. The content gets stored in a structured table. An RSS generator (a machine if you wil), authors the structured data. No extra work on my part. Yes, it is a little less flexible than the alternative, since any new piece of information I want to include in the feed has to have some persistent storage associated with it and code written to author it. This is a classic trade-off. I don’t have to worry about messing around with tools or proper formatting when I create content, I merely cram it into my blog and the machine does the rest.

Consumption

The other issue I have with Microformats is the Screen Scraping issue. Some Microformat proponents propose that we start building aggregators using Microformats instead of RSS. The problem with this approach as I see it is that these aggregators have to resort to screen scraping to find the appropriate markup within an HTML page. With RSS you have the benefit that the entire document is well structured, not just small sections within the document. You can use mature technologies to validate the document before you spend time trying to parse it. How well can you validate an HTML file that contains microformats alongside tag soup?

What Happens to Microformats When XHTML is widespread?

Microformats is designed to present data in a structured manner that works in current browsers. In a way, it is a compromise. XHTML promises the ability to add any kind of structured data (properly scoped by a namespace) to an HTML document, but XHTML is not yet well supported. So Microformats were created as a hybrid of XML and HTML. But what happens when XHTML is supported well. Are we going to settle for a bunch of divs to represent our data, or will we use more meaningful XML tags?

Microformats Benefits

Ok, now that I’m done being critical of Microformats (and I’m only critical because it is the new kid on the block and I want to know why I should support it, if at all), I would like to point out some benefits that occurred to me, apart from the ones I mentioned previously.

The first benefit is that it can work now. To the previous question I raised about what happens when XHTML arrives, one can say, “Who cares, it isn’t here now!” Touche! As the Greasemonkey script illustrates, people are already starting to take advantage of the presense of microformats to enhance user experience.

In part, this is an illustration of the Betamax principle. Although, I may think that RDF or XML feeds are a better technical solution to the problem Microformats tries to solve, the better technical solution doesn’t always win. Often, the more convenient solution wins. That’s why VHS won.

Second, it is flexible. By flexible, I mean that I can add microformat data by simply publishing the format. I don’t have to add a new table in my database to store hCalendar entries and then create a proper UI to add those entries. Instead, I just post a blog post and carefully format the post with the hCalendar format. Sure, I might screw it up, but I can do this now, without a recompile.

A third benefit I have heard mentioned is that it is more easily indexed. I don’t necessarily see why that is so as I have seen many RSS feeds indexed by Google.

Conclusion

So at this point, I am still a bit ambivalent about Microformats. I’ll probably sit back and watch how well it is adopted and see if there is a groundswell of support. We’ll definitely incorporate it into Subtext if it becomes adopted in a widespread manner. Just don’t expect to see me cheerleading a push to create Microformat aggregators. I still think RSS does a great job of that and I believe it does a better job than Microformats would. It is well known and just starting to gain mainstream recognition. There’s no point in splintering the aggregation industry at this point, confusing the layperson as a result. Besides, I have a significant time investment in RSS technologies I am not willing to give up just yet. ;)

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