Monday, 21 August 2006

Projects and Data Formats, or Scratching a Standard Itch

Fair warning: This post was written in bits and pieces over a week that I spent mostly on my back in bed; it hits two or three hot-button issues that I've been running up against. In the fullness of time, I may come back and break it up, or write follow-on entries pontificating on one point or another, but for the nonce, your patience — and comments! are appreciated.

Real standards happen in one of two ways. One way involves an organisation like the World Wide Web Consortium (or W3C as it is commonly known) puts together different committees and working groups, and over the course of various meetings, seminars, forums, and other corporate expense-account sinkholes, massive sets of documents are ratified; if we're lucky, somewhere within that will be nuggets of information and wisdom around which useful things can be accomplished. Successful xamples of this include standards such as HTML, XHTML and CSS 2. Less sucessful examples include efforts such as WCAG 2. While it may safely be assumed that nothing in the new standard will disrupt the existing order of the Internet, the flip side of this is that there may be no actual working implementation of the new standard (to prove that such is practical), and it may well be that the new standard is not the most efficient or elegant solution to the problem. This may be described as the "top-down" approach.

The other way that standards happen in the real world is for a developer, or typically a small group of developers, to come up with something that works for them, open up community/public comment and collaboration, and eventually submit the standard definition (whihc by then has several working implementations) to standards bodies like the W3C or the Internet Engineering Task Force. This may be seen as the "bottom-up" approach. Its success is largely tied to how effectively it solves what it sets out to, and equally critically, whether it does so in a manner that doesn't convey inherent advantage to a subset of its audience (such as the company employing the creators of the standard). Successful examples of this include vCard and its successor hCard.

Stumbling across the description of hCard (from An Angry Fix by Jeffrey Zeldman, a well-known figure in the online Web-design industry and community) after I had been giving some thought to a problem I had been having with contact information in various formats. Namely, that the information was in various formats, for my (ancient) PalmPilot, each of two different Nokia phones, my email package (Mozilla Thunderbird), and so on, and so on.... Keeping everything synchronised — the mundane necessity of ensuring that any given contact was in each of the needed places with the most recently updated information — is a burden sufficient to preclude any further effort, such as actually communicating anything useful or interesting to those contacts. (Maybe they read this blog...)

What's needed is a free, open source bit of software to take these various directories in varyingly historical formats, apply updates and changes to a single, current-technology directory around something like vCard (or, better, hCard), and then to spit out various dumps of this data to suit the different devices and their differing format requirements. If you think about this for a while, you can think of all sorts of ways that synchronisation could be a real pain...which update gets applied if you enter the same information two different ways on two devices? Suppose that I get energetic and add data to the "Custom Fields" in my Palm to represent data that has specific fields for the phone or Thunderbird — but since I add different data at different times, it's not always consistent? And on and on...

I'm going to keep one eye open over the next few weeks or months for something that does this relatively painlessly (and, of course, if anybody knows of any, please let me know). Otherwise, it's likely to become Item 374 in my medium-priority queue for Tools I Intend To Write (Someday).

Implicit in the first paragraph, and alluded to more directly in the third (see Zeldman et al) is the fact that the W3C has spent the last 2-3 years making abundantly clear who its customers and stakeholders are, and telling those of us who are professionally tied to standard technologies but who are not ourselves multinational corporations flush with cash for endless junkets (and patent payoffs), to take a long walk off the shortest pier available. While this may be seen by some as an efficient use of resources, addressing the corporate sponsors who are the titans of the marketplace anyway, somebody made a good point along the way: the Microsofts and H-Ps and IBMs and so on of the world started out as small shops that nobody had ever heard of. Had the standards of the day been defined less for what made sense from an engineering perspective than a lock-out-the-small-guys marketing directive, the world would be a very different — and likely less advanced — place today. What goes around, comes around — and the W3C in particular is building up a lot of bad blood with the vitally "interested parties" who don't happen to (presently) be among the 200 or so largest corporations on the planet.

What will happen? On the one hand, we'll likely wind up with lots of easily available but proprietary "standards" like Adobe PDF; the word processors I've used for the last four years have supported publishing in PDF without Adobe asking for a dime. On the other hand, we'll have highly marketed, widely Diggable, proprietary-means-you-only-get-it-from-us packages. These may have lively add-on Astroturfed communities, but they won't deliver the business benefits of truly open software; you can't fork the product, you can't completely support yourself, every use you make of the product or technology, in perpetuity, will be subject to the dictates and whims of the company that owns the product. Well and good, you say; they do, in fact, own their product, and have a right to do whatever they like with it. True, but where does that leave customers who incorporate that product into critical business processes? A year or so ago, an American friend of mine told me of one of his clients, who had a hard drive in their accounting server fail. They swapped out the drive, restored from backups, and found they needed to reinstall the order-management package they used — to generate and track every single order from the day the company was founded right up to the guy who just got off the phone — needed a license key. Fine; they call the vendor's toll-free phone number, expecting to be back in business (literally) in a few minutes. Oops. The vendor was bought out by a much larger firm; their version is now three versions out of date and the (new) vendor requires htem to buy an upgrade — at retail — to access the data they've just restored from tape.

When people ask me what the business benefits of open systems are, they don't want to hear a Stallmanesque sermon on the virtues of individual liberties, real though they may be, or the geek chic of cool code, or the cheapskate appeal to "it doesn't cost a thing". It does — in time and effort to convert and adopt within the enterprise. But what you get from it at the end of the day is control over your own business processes; you can keep running a ten-year-old word processor if you choose to, or have your accounting package customised just so, or whatever you can create a business justification for — and it's going to be much easier to cost-justify relatively audacious projects because there are no hidden surprises. Transparency, auditability, control, economy -- those may not be terribly high on the Digg word list; they may not have dozens of ...For Dummies-style books in your local chain bookshop, but people who make their living, and their employees' living, by making the numbers come out right every quarter should understand what I'm talking about. It's about time.

A side note: Anyone who is considering setting up business in Malaysia rather than other nearby countries (Thailand, Vietnam) may well want to consider the level of technical efficiency, customer support, and attitude towards serice of the local telecom quasi-monopoly. For most people and businesses, Telekom Malaysia is the only game in town. As one of the subscribers/victims of their Streamyx ADSL "service" for the last three years, I have watched connection speed and reliabillity plummet as thousands of new subscribers are pushed onto steadily lower and lower tiers of service. I believe, for example, that they now offer a "broadband" connection at 128 Kbps; twice as fast as a standard dialup modem. I am paying for a 2 Mbps — 2,000 Kbps — connection; in the last two months, I have never witnessed transfer rates higher than 400 Kbps, and for the last week never higher than 80 Kbps. If I were living in a capitalist system with competitive markets, I would have choices. In a functionally Stalinist economy where competition against government-linked is tightly controlled, I have no usable choices. It has taken me well over two weeks of trying to post this blog entry. Selemat datang ke Malaysia! (Welcome to Malaysia!)