UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Archive for the ‘standards’ Category

Interoperability Through Web 2.0

Posted by Brian Kelly on 13 December 2010

I recently commented on Martin Hamilton’s blog post on Crowdsourcing Experiment – Institutional Web 2.0 Guidelines“. In addition to the open approach Martin has taken to the development of institutional guidelines on use of Web 2.0 services the other thing that occurred to me was  how the interoperability of embedding interactive multimedia objects was achieved.

Interoperability is described in Wikipedia as “a property referring to the ability of diverse systems and organizations to work together“. But how is Martin’s blog post interoperable? The post contains several examples of slideshows created by others which are embedded in the post.  In addition to the slides, which are hosted on Slideshare, the post also contains embedded video clips together with an embedded interactive timeline.

How is such interoperability achieved? We often talk about “interoperability through open standards” but in this case that’s not really the case. The slides were probably created in Microsoft PowerPoint and are thus either a proprietary format or in the (open though contentious) OOXML format. But the slides might also have been created using Open Office or made available using PDF.  In any case it’s not the format which has allowed the slides to be able to be embedded elsewhere; rather its other standards which allow embedding which are important (e.g. using HTML elements such as IFRAME, OBJECT and EMBED).

It’s also worth noting that applications are needed which implement such interoperability.  In Martin’s post he has embedded objects which are hosted in the Slideshare, YouTube and Dipity applications.  The ability to be embedded (embeddability?) in other environments may also be dependent on the policies provided by such services.  You can normally embed such objects in Web pages, but not necessarily in environment such as WordPress.com (which restricts objects which can be embedded to a number of well-known services such as SlideShare and YouTube). I would be interested to know if popular CMS services have similar limitations on embedding content from Web 2.0 services.

If the original objects which Martin used in his blog post had been simply embedded in their host Web environment, perhaps as a HTML resource, they would not have been easily reused within Martin’s blog. Interoperability is not a simple function of use of open standards; there are other issues, such as market acceptance, which need to be considered.  And the open format embedded on a Web page could, ironically, be non-interoperable whereas a proprietary format hosted in a Web 2.0 environment could be widely used elsewhere.

Or to put it another way, shouldn’t we nowadays regard the provision of an HTML page on its own as a way of providing access to multiple devices but restricting use of the resource in other environments? Web 1.0 = publishing but Web 2.0 = reuse.

I’d like to conclude this post by embedding a slideshow in a talk on “So that’s it for it services, or is it?” which I found a few days ago linked to from a timetable for HEWIT event held earlier this year.  The slideshow hosted on Slideshare is clearly so much more useful than the PowerPoint file linked to from the HEWIT timetable – and as the HEWIT timetable has the URL http://www.gregynog.ac.uk/HEWIT/ I can’t help but think that the resource could well be overwritten by next year’s timetable, with the Slideshare resource possibly access to the resource for a longer period than the Gregynod Web site

Posted in standards, Web2.0 | Leave a Comment »

“HTML5: If You Bang Your Head Against The Keyboard You’ll Create a Valid Document!”

Posted by Brian Kelly on 10 December 2010

“HTML5 / CSS3 / JS  – a world of new possibilities”

I recently attended the 18th Bathcamp event entitled “Faster, cheaper, better!“.  For me the highlight of the evening was a talk by Elliott Kember (@elliottkember)  on “HTML5 / CSS3 / JS  – a world of new possibilities“.

The Elliottkember.com Web site describes Elliot as:

freelance web developer based in Bath, England
who builds and maintains high-traffic, powerful web apps,
resorts to using 32pt Georgia – sometimes in italic and printer’s primaries,
has 4978 followers on Twitter, speaks at conferences,
and wants to develop your idea into an application.

Elliott gave a fascinating run through some of the new presentational aspects of HTML5 and CSSS, appropriately using a HTML5 document to give the presentation.  His slides are available at http://riothtml5slides.heroku.com/ and are well worth viewing. Note that to progress through the slides you should use the forward and back arrows – and not that Elliott was experimenting with some of the innovative aspects of HTML5 and CSS3 so the presentation might not work on all browsers.

In this post I’ll not comment on the HTML5 features which Elliott described. Rather than looking at the additional features I’ll consider the implications of the ways in which the HTML5 specification is being simplified.

HTML5’s Simplicity

Elliot introduced the changes to HTML5’s by pointing out its simplicity. For example a HTML 4 document required the following Doctype definition:

<!--DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01//EN"
"http://www.w3.org/TR/html4/strict.dtd">-->

whereas HTML5 simply requires:

<!--doctype html>-->

The following illustrates a valid HTML5 document:

<!--DOCTYPE html>
Small HTML 5

Hello world
-->

As can be seen there is no requirement to include the <head> and <body> elements which are needed in order for a HTML 4 document to be valid (although HTML 4 documents which do not include these mandatory elements will be rendered correctly by Web browsers.

What about IE?

Over the years developments to HTML standards have always given rise to the question “What about legacy browsers?“. Often the answer has been “The benefits of the new standard will be self-evident and provide sufficient motivation for organisations to deploy more modern browsers“.  Whether the benefits of the developments from, say, HTML 3.2 to HTML 4 and HTML 4 to XHTML 1 have provided sufficient motivation for organisations to invest time and effort in upgrading their browers is, however, questionable – I know I have been to institutions which are still providing very dated versions of browsers on their public PCs.   And whether the HTML technology previews which tend to be demonstrated when a new version of HTML is released will be typical of the mainstream uses may also be questioned.  So there is still a question about the deployment of services based on HTML5 in an environment of flawed browsers, which includes Internet Explorer; it should also be noted that other browsers may also have limited support for new HTML5 (and CSS 3) features.

Elliott suggests that a solution to the “What about IE?” question may be provided by a HTML5 ‘shim’. A shim (which is also sometimes referred to as a ‘shiv’) is described in Wikipedia as “a small library which transparently intercepts an API, changes the parameters passed, handles the operation itself, or redirects the operation elsewhere“.

Remy Sharp has developed what he calls the HTML5 shiv, which consists of the following three lines:

<mce:script 
// -->

This code provides a mechanism for IE to recognose new elements, such as, as Elliott uses in his presentation, <slide>

Use it Now?

Should you start using HTML5 now?  Back in July in his plenary talk on “HTML5 (and friends): The future of web technologies – today” given at the IWMW 2010 event Patrick Lauke suggested that for new Web development work it would be appropriate to consider using HTML5.

Elliott was in agreement, with his slides  making the point that:

All decent browsers support enough of this stuff to make it worth using.

What this means is that you can start to make use of the simple HTML5 declaration but rather than use every HTML5 feature that is documented in the specification you should check the level of support for various features using, for example the Periodic Table of HTML5 Elements and the HTML5 Test web site and Wikipedia’s Comparison of layout engines (HTML5) as well as running standard usability checks on an appropriate range of browsers and platforms.

What About Validity of HTML5?

Following Elliott’s talk there was a question about the validity of HTML5 documents.  Elliott responding with a very graphic depiction of the much more liberal (if one dare uses that word!) approach to validity: “If you bang your head against the keyboard you’ll probably create a valid HTML5 document!“.

Such an approach is based on observing how few Web resources actually conform with existing HTML specifications.  In many cases browser rendering is being used as an acceptable test for conformity – if a Web page is displayed and is usable in popular Web browsers then it is good enough seems to be the situation today.  “After all” asked Elliott “how many people validate their Web pages today?” The small numbers of hands which were raised (including myself and Cameron Neylon) perhaps supported this view and when the follow-up question “Who bothers about using closing tags on <br> elements in XHTML documents these days?” was asked I think mine was the only hand which was raised.

The evidence clearly demonstrates that strict HTML validity, which was formally required in XHTML, has been rejected in the Web environment. In future, it would seem, there won’t be a need to bother about escaping &s and closing empty tags, although if Web authors wish to continue with such practices they can do so.

What About Complex Documents?

Such simplicity seemed to be welcomed by many who attended the Bathcamp meeting.  But myself and Cameron Neylon, an open science researcher based at the Science and Technology Facilities Council, still had some concerns.  What will the implications be if a HTML resource is being used not just for display and user interaction, but as a container for structured information?  How will automated tools process embedded information provided as RDFa or microdata if the look-and-feel and usability of a resource is the main mechanism for validation of the internal consistency of a resource?

And what if an HTML5 document is used as a container for other structured elements, such as mathematical formulae provided using MathML; chemcial formula provided using CML;  etc.?

There are dangers that endorsing current lax approaches to HTML validity can hinder the development of more sophisticated uses of HTML, especially in the research community. We are currently seeing researchers arguing that the main document format for use in scientific and research papers should move away from PDF to a more open and reusable format. HTML5 has been suggested as a possible solution? But will this require more rigourous use of the HTML5 specification?  And if the market place chooses to deploy tools which fail to implement such approaches, will this act as a barrier to deployment of HTML5 as a rich and interoperable format for the community?

Posted in HTML, standards | 4 Comments »

Moves Away From XML to JSON?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 26 November 2010

Although in the past I have described standards developed by the W3C which have failed to set the marketplace alight I have always regarded XML as a successful example of a W3C standard.  Part of its initial success was its simplicity – I recall hearing the story of when XML 1.0 was first published, with a copy of the spec being thrown into the audience to much laughter. The reason for the audience’s response? The 10 page (?) spec fluttered gently towards the audience but the SGML specification, for which XML provided a lightweight and Web-friendly alternative, would have crushed people sitting in the first few rows!   I don’t know whether this story is actually true but it provided a vivid way of communicating the simplicity of the standard which, it was felt, would be important in ensuring the standard would gain momentum and widespread adoption.

But where are we now, 12 years after the XML 1.0 specification was published? Has XML been successful in providing a universal markup language for use in not only a variety of document formats but also in protocols?

The answer to this question is, I feel, no longer as clear as it used to be.  In a post on the Digital Bazaaar blog entitled Web Services: JSON vs XML Manu Sporny, Digital Bazaar’s Founder and CEO, makes the case for the ‘inherent simplicity of JSON, arguing that:

XML is more complex than necessary for Web Services. By default, XML requires you to use complex features that many Web Services do not need to be successful.

The context to discussions in the blogosphere over XML vs JSON is the news that Twitter and Foursquare have recently removed XML support from their Web APIs and now support only JSON.  James Clark, in a post on XML vs the Web, appears somewhat ambivalent about this debate (“my reaction to JSON is a combination of ‘Yay’ and ‘Sigh‘”) but goes on to list many advantages of JSON over XML in a Web context:

… for important use cases JSON is dramatically better than XML. In particular, JSON shines as a programming language-independent representation of typical programming language data structures.  This is an incredibly important use case and it would be hard to overstate how appallingly bad XML is for this.

The post concludes:

So what’s the way forward? I think the Web community has spoken, and it’s clear that what it wants is HTML5, JavaScript and JSON. XML isn’t going away but I see it being less and less a Web technology; it won’t be something that you send over the wire on the public Web, but just one of many technologies that are used on the server to manage and generate what you do send over the wire.

The debate continues on both of these blogs.  But rather than engaging in the finer points of the debates of the merits of these two approaches I feel it is important to be aware of decisions which have already been taken.   And as Manu Sporny has pointed out:

Twitter and Foursquare had already spent the development effort to build out their XML Web Services, people weren’t using them, so they decided to remove them.

Meanwhile in a post on Deprecating XML Norman Walsh responds with the comment “Meh” -though he more helpfully expands in this reaction by concluding:

I’ll continue to model the full and rich complexity of data that crosses my path with XML, and bring a broad arsenal of powerful tools to bear when I need to process it, easily and efficiently extracting value from all of its richness. I’ll send JSON to the browser when it’s convenient and I’ll map the the output of JSON web APIs into XML when it’s convenient.

Is this a pragmatic approach which would be shared by developers in the JISC community, I wonder? Indeed on Twitter Tony Hirst has just askedCould a move to json make Linked Data more palatable to developers?” and encouraged the #jiscri and #devcsi communities to read a draft document on “JSON-LD – Linked Data Expression in JSON“.

Posted in jiscobs, standards, W3C | 9 Comments »

HTML and RDFa Analysis of Welsh University Home Pages

Posted by Brian Kelly on 17 November 2010

Surveying Communities

A year ago I published a survey of RSS Feeds For Welsh University Web Sites which reported on auto-discoverable RSS feeds available on the home page of 12 Welsh Universities.  This survey was carried out over a small community in order to identify patterns and best practices for the provision of RSS feeds which could inform discussions across the wider community.

Trends in Use of HTML and RDFa

As described in previous analysis of usage of RSS feeds on Scottish University home pages such surveys can help to understand the extent to which emerging new standards and best practices are being deployed within the sector and, if usage is low, in understanding the reasons and exploring ways in which barriers can be addressed.

With the growing interest in HTML5 and RDFa it will be useful to explore whether such formats are being used on institutional home pages.

An initial small-scale survey across Welsh University home pages has been carried out in order to provide some initial findings which can be used to inform discussions and further work in this area.

The Findings

The findings, based on a survey carried out on 21 October 2010, are given in the following table. Note that the HTML analysis was carried out using the W3C HTML validator. The RDFa analysis was carried out using Google’s Rich Snippets testing tool since it is felt that the benefits for searching which use of RDFa is felt to provide will be exploited initially to enhance the visibility of structured information to Google.

Institution Analysis Findings
1 Aberystwyth University HTML Analysis XHTML 1.0 Transitional
RDFa Analysis None found
2 Bangor University HTML Analysis XHTML 1.0 Transitional (with errors)
RDFa Analysis None found
3 Cardiff University HTML Analysis XHTML 1.0 Strict (with errors)
RDFa Analysis None found
4 Glamorgan University HTML Analysis HTML5 (with errors)
RDFa Analysis None found
5 Glyndŵr University HTML Analysis XHTML 1.0 Transitional (with errors)
RDFa Analysis None found
6 Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama HTML Analysis XHTML 1.0 Strict (with errors)
RDFa Analysis None found
7 Swansea University HTML Analysis XHTML 1.0 Transitional
RDFa Analysis None found
8 Swansea Metropolitan University HTML Analysis XHTML 1.0 Transitional (with errors)
RDFa Analysis None found
9 Trinity University College HTML Analysis XHTML 1.0 Strict (with errors)
RDFa Analysis None found
10 University of Wales Institute, Cardiff HTML Analysis XHTML 1.0 Strict (with errors)
RDFa Analysis None found
11 University of Wales, Newport HTML Analysis HTML 4.01 Transitional (with errors)

Discussion

Only one of the eleven Welsh institutions is currently making use of HTML5 on the institutional home page and none of them are using RDFa which can be detected by Google’s Rich Snippets testing tool.

The lack of use of RDFa, together with previous analyses of use of auto-detectable RSS feeds, would appear to indicate that University home pages are currently failing to provide machine-processable data which could be used to raise the visibility of institutional Web sites on search engines such as Google.

It is unclear whether this is due to a lack of awareness of the potential benefits which RDFa could provide, an awareness that potential benefits may not be realised due to search engines, such as Google, not currently processing RDFa from arbitrary Web sites, the difficulties in embedding RDFa due to limitations of existing CMSs, policy decisions relating to changes of such high profile pages, the provision of structured information in other ways or other reasons.

It would be useful to receive feedback from those involved in managing their  institution’s home page – and also if anyone is using RDFa (or related approaches) and does feel that they are gaining benefits.

Posted in Evidence, HTML, jiscobs, standards | 3 Comments »

Experiences Migrating From XHTML 1 to HTML5

Posted by Brian Kelly on 10 November 2010

IWMW 2010 Web Site as a Testbed

In the past we have tried to make use of the IWMW Web site as a test bed for various emerging new HTML technologies. On the IWMW 2010 Web site this year we evaluated the OpenLike service which “provides a user interface to easily give your users a simple way to choose which services they provide their like/dislike data” as well as evaluating use of RDFa.

We also have an interest in approaches to migration from use of one set of HTML technologies to another. The IWMW 2010 Web site has  therefore provided an opportunity to evaluate deployment of HTML5 and to identify possible problem areas with backwards compatibility.

Migration of Main Set of Pages

We migrated top-level pages of the Web site from the XHTML1 Strict Doctype to HTML5 and validation of the home page, programme, list of speakers, plenary talks and workshop sessions shows that it was possible to maintain the HTML validity of these pages.

A small number of changes had to be made to in order to ensure that pages which were valid using an XHTML Doctype  were valid using HTML5. In particular we had to change the form> element for the site search and replace all occurrences of <acronym> to <abbr>. We also changed occurrences of <a name="foo"> to <a id="foo"> since the name attribute is now obsolete.

The W3C’s HTML validator also spotted some problems with links which hadn’t been spotted previously when we ran a link-checking tool. In particular we spotted a couple of occurrences of the form <a href="http://www.foo.bar "> with a space being included rather than a trailing slash. This produced the error message:

Line 175, Column 51: Bad value http://www.foo.bar for attribute href on element a: DOUBLE_WHITESPACE in PATH.
Syntax of IRI reference:
Any URL. For example: /hello, #canvas, or http://example.org/. Characters should be represented in NFC and spaces should be escaped as %20.

This seems to be an example of an instance in which HTML5 is more restrictive than XHTML 1 or HTML 4.

Although many pages could be easily converted to HTML5 a number of pages there were HTML validity problems which had been encountered with the XHTML 1 Transitional Doctype which persisted using HTML5.  These were pages which included embedded HTML fragments provided by third party Web services such as Vimeo and Slideshare. The Key Resources page illustrates the problem, for which the following  error is given:

An object element must have a data attribute or a type attribute.

related to the embedding of a Slideshare widget.

Pages With Embedded RDFa

The Web pages for each of the individual plenary talks and workshop sessions contained embedded RDFa metadata about the speakers/workshop facilitators and abstracts of the sessions themselves.  As described in a post on  Experiments With RDFa and shown in output from Google’s Rich Snippets Testing tool RDFa can be used to provide structured information such as, in this case, people, organisational and event information for an IWMW 2010 plenary talk.

However since many of the pages about plenary talks and workshop sessions contain embedded third party widgets including, for the plenary talks, widgets for videos of the talks and for the accompanying slides, these pages mostly fail to validate since the widget code provided by the services often fails to validate.

A page on “Parallel Session A5: Usability and User Experience on a Shoestringdoes, however validate using the XHTML1+RDFa Doctype, since this page does not include any embedded objects from such third party services. However attempting to validate this page using the HTML5 Doctype produces 38 error messages.

Discussion

The experiences in looking to migrate a Web site from use of XHTML 1 to HTML5 shows that in many cases such a move can be achieved relatively easily.  However pages which contain RDFa metadata may cause validation problems which might require changes in the underlying data storage.

The W3C released a working draft of a document on “HTML+RDFa 1.1: Support for RDFa in HTML4 and HTML5” in June 2010. However it is not yet clear if the W3C’s HTML validator has been updated to support the proposals containing in the draft document.  It is also unclear how embedding RDFA in HTML5 resources relates to the “HTML Microdata” working draft proposal which was also released in June 2010 (with an editor’s draft version dated 20 October 2010 also available on the W3C Web site).

I’d welcome comments from those who are working in this area.  In particular, will the user interface benefits provided by HTML5 mean that HTML5 should be regarded as a key deployment environment for new services, or is there a need to wait for consensus to emerge on ways in which metadata can be best embedded in such resources in order to avoid maintenance problems downstream?

Posted in HTML, standards | 1 Comment »

W3C and ISO

Posted by Brian Kelly on 9 November 2010

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) describes itself as “an international community where Member organizations, a full-time staff, and the public work together to develop Web standards“.  But surprisingly the W3C doesn’t actually produce standards. RatherW3C develops technical specifications and guidelines through a process designed to maximize consensus about the content of a technical report, to ensure high technical and editorial quality, and to earn endorsement by W3C and the broader community.

But this is now changing.  The W3C recently announed that “Global Adoption of W3C Standards [is] Boosted by ISO/IEC Official Recognition“.  The announcement describes how “the International Standards Organization (ISO), and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) took steps that will encourage greater international adoption of W3C standards. W3C is now an ‘ISO/IEC JTC 1 PAS Submitter’ bringing ‘de jure’ standards communities closer to the Internet ecosystem.

What this means is that the W3C can submit their specifications directly for country voting to become ISO/IEC standards. The aims are to help avoid global market fragmentation;  to improve deployment within government use of W3C specifications and acceptance of a W3C specification when there is evidence of stability/market acceptance of the specification.

In their submission the W3C provided an overview of how they standardise a Web technology:

  1. W3C participants, members usually generate interest in a particular topic.
    W3C usually runs open workshops (events with a open call for papers) to identify new areas of work.
  2. When there is enough interest in a topic (e.g., after a successful Workshop and/or discussion on an Advisory Committee mailing list), the Director announces the development of a proposal for a new Activity or Working Group charter, depending on the breadth of the topic of interest.
    An Activity Proposal describes the scope, duration, and other characteristics of the intended work, and includes the charters of one or more groups (with requirements, deliverables, liaisons, etc) to carry out the work.
  3. When there is support within W3C for investing resources in the topic of interest, the Director approves the new Activity and groups get down to work.
    There are three types of Working Group participants: Member representatives, Invited Experts, and Team representatives. Team representatives both contribute to the technical work and help ensure the group’s proper integration with the rest of W3C.
  4. Working Groups create specifications based on consensus that undergo cycles of revision and review as they advance to W3C Recommendation status.
    The W3C process for producing specification includes significant review by the Members and public (every 3 months all drafts have to be made public on our Web site w3.org), and requirements that the Working Group be able to show implementation and interoperability experience.
  5. At the end of the process, the Advisory Committee (all members) reviews the mature specification, and if there is support, W3C publishes it as a Final Recommendation.
  6. The document enters what is called Life-after-Recommendation where the group/committee does maintenance, collects and publishes errata, considers minor changes, and if the technology is still evolving, prepares the next major version.

The W3C have not yet defined the selection criteria for identifying which specifications suitable for submission. I think it will be interesting to see how the market acceptance criteria will be used.  It will also be interesting to see what the timescales for such standardisation processes will be and whether the standardisation will be applied to recent W3C specification or older ones.  It seems, for example, that the ISO/IEC 15445:2000 standard for Information technology — Document description and processing languages — HyperText Markup Language (HTML) , which was first published in 2000 and updated in 2003, is the ISO standardisation of the HTML 4.0 specification. We can safely say that HTML 4 does have market acceptance, but the market place has  moved on with developers now interested in the HTML5 specification. Will the ISO standardisation take place several years after a standard has become ubiquitous, I wonder?

Posted in standards, W3C | 2 Comments »

Eight Updated HTML5 Drafts and the ‘Open Web Platform’

Posted by Brian Kelly on 4 November 2010

Eight Updated HTML5 Drafts

Last week the W3C announced “Eight HTML5 Drafts Updated”.  The HTML Working Group has published eight documents all of which were released on 19 October 2010:

Meanwhile on the W3C blog Philippe Le Hégaret has published a post on “HTML5: The jewel in the Open Web Platform” in which he describes how he has been “inspired by the enthusiasm for the suite of technical standards that make up what W3C calls the ‘Open Web Platform’“.

The ‘Open Web Platform’

The term ‘Open Web Platform’ seems strange, especially coming from a W3C employee. After all, has the Web always been based on an open platform since it was first launched, with open standards and open source client and server tools?

Philippe Le Hégaret goes on to say that Open Web Platform is “HTML5, a game-changing suite of tools that incorporates SVG, CSS and other standards that are in various stages of development and implementation by the community at W3C”.

Philippe described these ideas in a video on “The Next Open Web Platform” published in January 2010. From the transcript is seems that W3C are endorsing the characterisations of  “Web 1.0,  which provided a “very passive user experience“,  followed by “Web 2.0″ which provided “a more interactive user experience“.

The W3C, it seems, have announced that they are now “pushing the web in two areas, which are orthogonals. One is the Web of Data, that we refer to, of course, the Semantic Web, cloud computings that we are also interested in and mash-ups, data integration in general. And the other one is the Web of Interaction“.

Discussion

Whilst the W3C have always been prolific in publishing technical standards they have, I feel, been relatively unsuccessful in marketing their vision. It was the commercial sector which coined the term ‘Web 2.0′ – a term which had many detractors in the developer community, who showed their distaste by describing it as “a mere marketing term“.

Web 2.0 is marketing term – and a very successful marketing term, which also spun off other 2.0 memes.  So I find it interesting to observe that the W3C are now pro-active in the marketing of their new technical vision, centred around HTML5 and other presentational standards under the term ‘Open Web Platform’.

And alongside the ‘Open Web Platform W3C are continuing to promote what  they continue to describe as the ‘Semantic Web’.  But will this turn out to be a positive brand?  Over time we have seen the lower case semantic web, the pragmatic Semantic Web,  the Web of Data and Linked Data being used as a marketing term (with various degrees of technical characterisations).    But will the variety of terms which have been used result in confusion?  Looking at a Google Trend comparison of the terms “Semantic Web” and “Open Web Platform” we see a decrease in searches for “Semantic Web” since 2004, whilst there is not yet sufficient data to show the trends for the “Open Web Platform“.

Whilst I, like Philippe Le Hégaret, am also an enthusiast for the ‘Open Web Platform’ (who, after all, could fail to support a vision of an open Web?)  there is still a need to appreciate concerns and limitations and understand benefits before making decisions on significant uses of the standards which comprise the Open Web Platform. I will be exploring such issues in future posts – and welcome comments from others with an interest in this area.

Posted in jiscobs, standards, W3C | 2 Comments »

Release of MathML v3 as a W3C Standard

Posted by Brian Kelly on 29 October 2010

On 21 October 2010 the W3C made an announcement about an “important standard for making mathematics on the Web more accessible and international, especially for early mathematics education“. The press release described how “MathML 3 is the third version of a standard supported in a wide variety of applications including Web pages, e-books, equation editors, publishing systems, screen readers (that read aloud the information on a page) and braille displays, ink input devices, e-learning and computational software.”

But what about support from browser vendors?  The press release went on to describe how “MathML 3 is part of W3C’s Open Web Platform, which includes HTML5, CSS, and SVG. Browser vendors will add MathML 3 support as they expand their support for HTML5. Firefox and Camino already support MathML 2 natively, and Safari/WebKit nightly builds continue to improve. Opera supports the MathML for CSS profile of MathML 3. Internet Explorer users can install a freely-available MathPlayer plug-in. In addition, JavaScript software such as MathJax enables MathML display in most browsers without native support.

Does it work? In order to investigate I installed the Firemath extension for FireFox and the MathPlayer plugin for Internet Explorer.  I then viewed the MathML Browser Test (Presentation Markup) page using FireFox (v 4.0), Chrome, Internet Explorer (v 8) and Opera (v 10.61). The results shown using Internet Explorer version 8 are shown below, with the first and second columns containing an image of how the markup has been rendered in TeXShop and FireFox with STIK Beta Fonts and the third column showing how the markup is rendered in the browser the user is using.

A quick glance at the display on all four browsers shows that the support seems pretty good [Note following a commented I received I have noticed that the page isn't rendered in Chrome) - added 2 November 2010].  However it would take a  mathematician to ensure that the renderings of mathematical formula are acceptable.

It should also be noted that MathML 3 is part of HTML5. This means that embedding maths in Web documents should become easier, with direct import from HTML to mathematics software and vice versa.

In order to encourage takeup the W3C Math home page provides links to “A Gentle Introduction to MathML” and “MathML: Presenting and Capturing Mathematics for the Web” tutorials with “The MathML Handbook” available for purchase.

The W3C have provided a “MathML software list” together with a “MathML 3 Implementation Testing Results Summary” – which, it should be noted, has not not been updated since July 2010.

I think this announcement is of interest in the context of institutional planning for migration of document formats to richer and more open environments provided by HTML5 and associated standards such as MathML, CSS 3. etc.

Will we start to see documents containing MathML markup being uploaded to institutional repositories, I wonder? And should this format be preferred to PDFs for scientific papers containing mathematical markup?

Posted in jiscobs, standards, W3C | Tagged: | 8 Comments »

Apple Ditching Preinstalled Flash On Future Macs

Posted by Brian Kelly on 27 October 2010

A couple of days ago there was an announcement that “Apple [is] Ditching Preinstalled Flash On Future Macs“. On the surface this decision has been taken to minimise security problems associated with Flash software – as described on the CultOfMac blogBy making users download Flash themselves, Apple is disavowing the responsibility of keeping OS X’s most infamously buggy and resource heavy third-party plugin up to date on users’ machines“.

The Guardian reported the news in rather more aggressive terms: “Apple has escalated its war with Adobe’s Flash Player by stopping including the browser plugin on the Macintosh computers that it sells” and points out how this will inconvenience many users as “The surprising and unannounced move means that buyers will have to figure out how to download the player and plugin on any of the computers that they buy – a process which Apple has not simplified by including any “click to install” links“.

Since the Guardian article pointed out that “Jobs has criticised [Flash] as ‘proprietary’” and “praised HTML5 and the video codecs available on it” this story might be regarded as a success story for open standards.  But there is a need to be aware that Flash’s proprietary nature has been recognised as a concern to those seeking to make use of open standards in development work for some time.  The NOF-Digitise Technical Advisory Service provided an FAQ which pointed out in about 2002 that “Flash is a proprietary solution, which is owned by Macromedia.  As with any proprietary solutions there are dangers in adopting it as a solution: there is no guarantee that readers will remain free in the long term, readers (and authoring tools) may only be available on popular platforms, the future of the format would be uncertain if the company went out of business, was taken over, etc.“.

In retrospect the FAQ could also be have said that “As with any open standard there are dangers in adopting it as a solution: there is no guarantee that readers will be provided on popular platforms, readers (and authoring tools) may fail to be available on popular platforms, the future of the format would be uncertain if the open standard fails to be widely adopted, etc.

It is only now, about eight years after that advice was provided, that we are seeing Flash started to be deprecated by major players and open standards alternatives being provided by such vendors. And although the vendors will inevitably cite the benefits of open standards in their press releases, since such benefits have always been apparent, in reality decisions to support open standards are likely to have been made by vendors for commercial reasons – in this case competition between Apple and Adobe.

But what can be learnt from such history lesson?  Perhaps that the availability of an open standard is no guarantee that it will supersede proprietary alternatives and that commercial vendors can have a significant role to play in ensuring the take-up of open standards.  In which case it does seem that HTML5 will be an important standard and Flash is under threat.

But whilst that view seems to be increasingly being accepted it is worth noting concerns that have been raised within W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium, with Philippe Le Hegaret pointing out thatThe problem we’re facing right now is there is already a lot of excitement for HTML5, but it’s a little too early to deploy it because we’re running into interoperability issues”.

Hmm, it seems as if the HTML5 maturity debate will continue to run.

Posted in HTML, standards | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

URI Interface to W3C’s Unicorn Validator

Posted by Brian Kelly on 23 September 2010

The W3C recently announced that they had launched Unicorn, which they described as “a one-stop tool to help people improve the quality of their Web pages. Unicorn combines a number of popular tools in a single, easy interface, including the Markup validator, CSS validator, mobileOk checker, and Feed validator“.

Output from UnicornAn example of how this validation service works is illustrated, which is based on validation of the UKOLN home page.

The  default options provide validation of the HTML and CSS of the selected page together with any auto-discoverable RSS feeds.

The interface to the validator is a Web form hosted on the W3C Web site.

But encouraging use of such validation services would be much easier if the interface was more closely integrated with am author’s browsing environment, so that they didn’t have to visit an other page and copy and paste a URL.

The UKOLN Web site has been configured to provide this ease-of-use. Appending ,unicorn to the UKOLN home page will invoke the Unicorn validator – and this option can be used on any page on the UKOLN Web site.

This service is implemented by adding the following line to the Apache Web server’s configuration file:

RewriteRule /(.*),unicorn http://validator.w3.org/unicorn/check? ucn_uri =http://%{HTTP_HOST}/$1&ucn_task=conformance# [R=301]

I’m not sure how easy it may be to implement such extensions to Web servers these days; there may be policy barriers to such changes or perhaps technical barriers imposed by Content Management Systems.  But I wonder if this simple approach might be of interest to others?

Posted in HTML, standards, W3C | 1 Comment »

An Early Example of a TTML Application

Posted by Brian Kelly on 16 September 2010

Back in February 2010 the W3C announced a Candidate Recommendation Updated for Timed Text Markup Language (TTML) 1.0. This article referred to work being carried out by the W3C’s Timed Text Working Group which had been asked to produce a W3C Recommendation for media online captioning by refining the W3C specification Timed Text Markup Language (TTML) 1.0 based on implementation experience and interoperability feedback.

This work is now complete with version 1.0 of the Timed Text Markup Language (TTML) 1.0 Proposed Recommendation having being published on 14 September 2010.

Martin Hawksey’s iTitle Twitter captioning tool was an early example of an application which has exploited this emerging new standard. As described in the Twitter subtitling article in Wikipedia Martin “created a subtitle file from tweets in W3C Timed Text Markup Language (TTML) which could be used with the BBC iPlayer“. This example was initially used to provide Twitter captioning of the BBC/OU The Virtual Revolution programme followed by Gordon’s Browns talk on Building Britain’s Digital Future.

It’s good to see this example of a prototype service which takes a proposed standard and demonstrates its value.  Congratulations to Martin and RSC Scotland North and East.

I’d be interested, though, to speculate on what other possibilities time text markup language applications may have to offer. Any suggestions anyone?

Posted in standards, W3C | 1 Comment »

Failures In Forcing People To Use Standards

Posted by Brian Kelly on 15 September 2010

Why Not Use a Richer DTD?

My recent post on EPub Format For Papers in Repositories generated some interesting discussion. In particular I was interested in Peter Sefton’s response to Stian Haklev’s suggestion that:

… instead of specifying the exact margins and fonts to be used, why not give us a DTD? Or some other form of easy authoring a structured document? This would make it much more future-proof, and also enable creation of different versions ….

I’m still not sure about what format and production process that would be the best. The NIH DTDs for academic publishing seem very robust and future-proof, but there would have to be an easy way to generate the content, with stylesheets or macros for Word/OOffice etc.

The advantages of a more structured authoring environment seem to be self-evident. However Pete Sefton is unconvinced, not of the merits of the benefits which this approach could provide but whether such an approach is achievable. As Peter reminds us:

The ETD movement is littered with attempts to use DTDs and coerce people into using structured authoring tools like XML editors. As far as I know none of these have been successful, and what happens is they end up falling back on word processor input

Experiences at the University of Southern Queensland

In his comment Peter linked to a post he published recently entitled “ICE to DocBook? Yes, but I wouldn’t bother“. On the post Peter summarised the benefuts of the DocBook standard, quoting the Wikipedia article which describes how:

DocBook is a semantic markup language for technical documentation. It was originally intended for writing technical documents related to computer hardware and software but it can be used for any other sort of documentation.

As a semantic language, DocBook enables its users to create document content in a presentation-neutral form that captures the logical structure of the content; that content can then be published in a variety of formats, including HTML, XHTML, EPUB, PDF, man pages and HTML Help, without requiring users to make any changes to the source.

As Peter pointed out this “sounds like a good idea for documents – getting all those formats for free“.  But in reality “but you have to take into account the cost of creating the documents, inducing the authors to capture the semantics, and providing tools for authors that they will actually use“. Peter described how this has filed to happen: “when USQ (University of Southern Queensland) tried to get academics to climb a steep hill with the GOOD system, they simply wouldn’t do it“.

I agree with Pete’s concerns – and even getting users to make use of MS Word in a more structured way can be difficult.

Users Can Be A Barrier

It strikes me that the users can be a barrier to the effective deployment of more interoperable and richer services in general whether this is, as in this case, use of more structured content creation environments or, as I suggested in a recent post on “Why Skype has Conquered the World” and, some time ago, in a post on “Why Did SMIL and SVG Fail?“, the deployment of open standards.

I had previously suggested some reasons for the failures of such laudable approaches to take off which included (a) over-complex solutions and (b) lack of engagement from vendors.  However it now seems to be that a barrier which may be overlooked is a lack of interest from the end user community. I can recall having discussions about the likely take-up of emerging open standards in which the dangers that users might be happy with existing solutions were dismissed with the argument that ‘open standards provide interoperability and that’s what users want’.

There is a need to factor in user inertia into development plans, even when such plans are based on what appear to be clear benefits.

Posted in standards | 2 Comments »

DBPedia and the Relationships Between Technical Articles

Posted by Brian Kelly on 14 September 2010

Wikipedia is Popular!

I recently wrote a blog post in which I asked How Well-Read Are Technical Wikipedia Articles? The statistics I quoted seemed to suggest that content provided in Wikipedia is well-read. This, for me, suggests that we should be making greater efforts to enhance the content provided in Wikipedia – and avoid having valuable content being hidden away in large PDF reports which few people are likely to read.

Wikipedia Infobox for HTML5 entry

Wikipedia Infoboxes

But in addition to the content providing in Wikipedia it also seems to me that we should be making more of an effort in exploiting the potential of the Wikipedia Infoboxes.

An infobox is described as “a fixed-format table designed to be added to the top right-hand corner of articles to consistently present a summary of some unifying aspect that the articles share and to improve navigation to other interrelated articles“.

An example of an infobox for the HTML5 Wikipedia entry is shown. As suggested by the definition it provides a summary of the key aspects of the HTML5 markup language. If you view the entry for HTML you will similar information which is presented in a similar fashion.

The infoboxes provide consistency in the user interface for groups of related Wikipedia pages. A better example can be gained if you look at entries for countries or cities. For example view the entries for the UK and USA or Bath, Bristol and London to see how the infoboxes are being used in these contexts.

If the Infoxes were solely concerned with the user display I wouldn’t be too interested. However these sets of structured information form the basis of the content which is used in DBpedia. And the ability to process such information when it is provided in Linked Data is really interesting.

An example of the potential for DBpedia has been described by Martin Poulter in a post on Getting information about UK HE from Wikipedia which explores some of the ideas I discussed on A Challenge To Linked Data Developers. But rather than discussing how DBpedia might be used to analyse data about Universities in this post I want to explore its potential for exploring information about technical standards.

DBpedia and Relationships Between Technical Standards

The DBpedia RelFinder illustrates how such structured and linked information can be processed. I used this service to explore the relationships between the Wikipedia infobox entries for XML, XSLT and the World Wide Web Consortium. The output is illustrated below.

Relationships between W3C, XML and XSLT

If we are looking to provide developers with a better understanding of important technical standards and their relationships, rather than writing reports which provide such information wouldn’t it be more effective if we ensured that we engaged in the creation and maintenance of such information provided in infoboxes in Wikipedia entries as well as contributing to the content of such pages?

If you look at the entry for the metadata standards for MODS (Metadata Object Description Schema) or METS (Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard) you’ll find that these entries do not (currently) have an infobox. Similarly the entry for DCMI is also lacking such structured reusable metatadata – which is perhaps disappointing for a organisation which is about metadata.

Isn’t it time to engage more with Wikipedia? And if the development community across the UK HE sector were to do this in a pro-active fashion wouldn’t this be a good example of how the benefits can be shared more widely? The Big Society, perhaps?

Links between JISC projectsI’ll conclude by saying that if you are still unclear as to what a visualisation of the relations between such resources might look like you can view a video in which Balviar Notay illustrates how such an application might be used for “a search tool that visualises the links between JISC projects to help explore the knowledge that the projects have produced“.

Posted in Linked Data, standards | 1 Comment »

New W3C Document Standards for XHTML and RDFa

Posted by Brian Kelly on 27 August 2010

New W3C Draft Documents

The W3C have recently announced that new “Drafts of RDFa Core 1.1 and XHTML+RDFa 1.1 [have been] Published“. The announcement states that:

The RDFa Working Group has just published two Working Drafts: RDFa Core 1.1 and XHTML+RDFa 1.1. RDFa Core 1.1 is a specification for attributes to express structured data in any markup language. The embedded data already available in the markup language (e.g., XHTML) is reused by the RDFa markup, so that publishers don’t need to repeat significant data in the document content. XHTML+RDFa 1.1 is an XHTML family markup language. That extends the XHTML 1.1 markup language with the attributes defined in RDFa Core 1.1.

Meanwhile on 24th June 2010 the latest version of the “HTML5: A vocabulary and associated APIs for HTML and XHTML” working draft was published.

Patrick Lauke’s talk on “HTML5 (and friends): The future of web technologies – today” generated a lot of interest at the IWMW 2010 event – but as I pointed out in the workshop conclusions session, there seems to be some uncertainty as to whether the focus for those involved in the provision of institutional Web services should be on the user interface developments provided in HTML5 or in use of HTML as a contained for reusable (linked) data which RDFa aims to provide.

Of course for many the requirement will be to enhance the user interface (for human visitors) and provide access to machine readable data (for machines). The latter can be achieved in various ways but if you choose to go down the RDFa route a  question then is: “Can you embed RDFa in HTML5 documents and, of so, how do you do this?“.

The answer to this question is not (yet) clear.  The W3C have published a  “HTML5+RDFa: A mechanism for embedding RDF in HTML” working draft document – but this was released in July 2009 and hasn’t been updated since [Note that while this document on the dev.w3c.org Web site has not been updated or links to new versions provided, as described in a comment to this post a more recent document on HTML+RDFa 1.1: Support for RDFa in HTML4 and HTML5, dated 24 June 2010 is available - this comment added on 2 September 2010].

This document also states that:

Implementors should be aware that this specification is not stable. Implementors who are not taking part in the discussions are likely to find the specification changing out from under them in incompatible ways. Vendors interested in implementing this specification before it eventually reaches the Candidate Recommendation stage should join the aforementioned mailing lists and take part in the discussions.

But such caveats are also true of the RDFa Core 1.1 and XHTML+RDFa 1.1 draft documents, both of which state that:

This is a draft document and may be updated, replaced or obsoleted by other documents at any time. It is inappropriate to cite this document as other than work in progress

In addition the HTML5 working draft states that:

Implementors should be aware that this specification is not stable. Implementors who are not taking part in the discussions are likely to find the specification changing out from under them in incompatible ways. Vendors interested in implementing this specification before it eventually reaches the Candidate Recommendation stage should join the aforementioned mailing lists and take part in the discussions.

Meanwhile the “HTML Microdata” working draft was also published on 10th August 2010, and this again states that:

Implementors should be aware that this specification is not stable. Implementors who are not taking part in the discussions are likely to find the specification changing out from under them in incompatible ways. Vendors interested in implementing this specification before it eventually reaches the Candidate Recommendation stage should join the aforementioned mailing lists and take part in the discussions.

Microdata is being proposed as an extension of microformats which addresses deficiencies in microformats without the added complexities of  RDFa.

What Does the Future Hold?

Should you start to migrate HTML documents from an existing HTML 4 or XHTML 1 environment to HTML5?  The advice given by Patrick Lauke in his talk, as reported by @iwmwlive, was “If you want to take advantage of the new features, go ahead with HTML5, but don’t rush off to recode if you don’t need it“.  But while much of the buzz surrounding the new features provided by HTML5 concern user interface developments (such as native support for video and  enhanced forms validation) the future regarding use of HTML as a container for data seems to be somewhat uncertain.

The best advice may be not to rush off to embed data in your HTML resource if you don’t need to.  But as such advice can be a barrier to innovation if needs to be qualified by the suggestion that if you do wish to embed data using RDFa, microdata of microformats, you should ensure that you do so using a management system which will enable you to change the format you use if you discover that you have selected an approach which fails to take off.  This advice is, of course, reflects the warning given in the draft documents – but not everyone reads such advice!

Posted in HTML, standards, W3C | 4 Comments »

“Why Skype has Conquered the World”

Posted by Brian Kelly on 13 August 2010

Yesterday the Guardian published an article entitled “Why Skype has Conquered the World“. This reminded of my “Skype, Two Years After Its Nightmare Weekend” post. Back in September 2009 I wrote:

The headline in the Technology Guardian supplement read “Skype’s nightmare weekend highlights peer-to-peer fears” two year’s ago back on 23 August 2007. The article described how “Skype’s popular internet telephone service went down on August 16 and was unavailable for between two and three days“.

I remember this incident as, with people’s attention focussed on the loss of this service (fortunately at a non-critical time in the academic year) our University IT Service department took the opportunity to remind the Skype users on campus (which included me) that Skype was a proprietary application. The recommended VoIP application, which was about to be deployed for the start of the academic year, was the FreeWire phone service. This, I was told, was recommended as it was based on open standards. This sounded interesting, especially if it provided the application independence which Skype lacks. So I looked at the FreeWire Web site and found that “It’s only when you call non-Freewire phones that you have to pay“. So it’s based on open standards, but you have to pay if you try to call a user who isn’t running the same software as you. It’s no different from Skype, it would seem – except, perhaps, that as I speak there are almost 17 million Skype users online. In comparison the standards-based FreeWire service services a niche market (and perhaps a satisfied niche market as, here at Bath University several student residences now have Voice-over-IP telephones in the bedrooms).

How how things developed in the VoIP world since then?  Yesterday’s Guardian article tells us that:

Skype is one of the great unheralded success stories of the internet: where Facebook and Twitter are busy shortening attention spans and relieving us of our sense of private space, Skype has quietly changed the way we talk. That Facebook has 500 million users is well known but there are 560 million registered Skype users who have made a total of 250bn minutes of calls since it was founded, seven years ago this month.

The article went on to suggest that Skype’s success was due to its ease-of-use and low cost:

Using it is easy: all you need is an internet connection and a laptop that has a microphone and, ideally, a webcam. When I first visited the US, 20 years ago, I would ring home by shovelling sackloads of quarters into payphones; these days, thanks to Skype, I can talk daily to friends from anywhere in the world. Calls are free to other Skype users and cheap to everyone else.

It’s not without its flaws, though:

As a habitual Skype user I have become accustomed to its failings – the frozen webcam image, the metallic sound of the human voice when transported through the air, and the timelag that afflicts some long-distance conversations.

But the author is clearly a fan:

And yet it is still one of the few things online that has indisputably improved our lives and made the world that much smaller and chattier.

and several of the comments to the article support this (“Skype is one of those few online services that are massive but have (as far as I see) zero negative opinion“) with criticisms focussing on Rupert Murdoch’s challenging the right of Skype to register its name as a trademark in Europe, claiming that it is too close to its own Sky brand.

So let’s be honest and admit that a closed proprietary VoIP service has, for the consumer market, triumphed over the open standards alternatives. We need to remember these stories when we make recommendations on use of open standards in development work.  As I proposed in a position paper which I prepared for the CETIS Future of Interoperability Standards meeting early this year there is a need to make use of a risks assessment approach to the selection of open standards.  And one of the risks which needs to be considered is the risk that end users might be happy with proprietary solutions.

Posted in standards | 4 Comments »

How Well-Read Are Technical Wikipedia Articles?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 8 July 2010

In a recent post on Having An Impact Through Wikipedia I suggested that it would be useful if JISC-funded synthesis reports, for example reports on emerging new standards, used Wikipedia as a means of enhancing access to such work. In the post I pointed out that “I can’t find usage statistics for the page [but] I suspect that the article [on Amplified Conference which I created] will have been read my more people than have read my various peer-reviewed papers, blog posts, etc.” In response to a request for examples of tools which provide usage statistics for Wikipedia articles Martin Greaney suggested thatIt’s quite basic, but the tool at http://stats.grok.se/ might give you enough of an idea of the traffic to certain articles in Wikipedia“.

As Lorcan Dempsey suggested in a tweetThe Wikipedia article traffic stats site mentioned in your comments is quite interesting. wonder how reliable is“. I agree and thought I would explore what the statistics tell us about Wikipedia entries for a number of areas related to Web, metadata and related standards of interest to the JISC development community.

My survey was carried out on 6 July 2010. The following table provides a link to the relevant Wikipedia article, the data the article was created (with a link to the original page for the article), my comments on the article and the usage statistics for October 2009 and June 2010 (two dates chosen to observe any significant variations).

Page Created Summary (subjective comments) Stats: Oct 2009 Stats: Jun 2010
Linked Data May 2007 Multiple concerns have been identified with this article. 5,423 8,102
HTML Jul 2001 Appears to be a well-written and comprehensive article. Includes info box so factual information is available in DBPedia. 147,357 143,386
XML Sep 2001 Appears to be a well-written and comprehensive article. Includes info box so factual information is available in DBPedia. 159,749 126,599
XSLT Feb/Jun 2002 Appears to be a very thorough and comprehensive article. Includes info box so factual information is available in DBPedia. 7,160 18,938
RSS Sep 2002 Appears to be a well-written and comprehensive article. Includes a very brief info box so factual information is available in DBPedia. 7,160 (gaps) 18,938
AJAX (programming) Mar 2005 Appears factually correct . 98,629 90,300
SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language) Sep 2004 Appears to be a very thorough and comprehensive article. 4,421 2,942
Z39.50 Oct 2004 Brief article which has been flagged as in need of improvements. 3,960 2,592
Search/Retrieve Web Service Feb 2004 Very little information provided. 506 462
Dublin Core Oct 2001 Appears factually correct though citations need improving. 7,013 7,501
METS (Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard) Sep 2006 Appears factually correct though citations need improving. 7,236 4,573
MODS (Metadata Object Description Schema) Aug 2006 Appears to be a reasonable although succinct summary. 546 583

Extrapolating from the usage statistics for the two dates it would seem that popular articles such as HTML and XML have an annual number of views of around 1,750,000 and 1,720,000 whilst an article on a less well-known standard such as METS has an annual number of views of around 70,0000. It is perhaps surprising, in light of the high viewing figures for METS that the annual viewing figures for MODS is around 6,700. Perhaps this is due to the name clash between the METS acronym and the Mets name used to refer to the New York Mets. However there isn’t, as far as I am aware, such scope for confusion with names such as HTML, XML, SAML, etc.

What conclusion might we draw from such statistics? I would suggest that if I had an interest in ensuring that users had a good understanding of what Dublin Core is about and had access to the key sources of information then contributing to the Dublin Core Wikipedia page would be a good way of achieving that goal – after all the estimated viewing figures of around 87,000 surely can’t be ignored.

Now Matt Jukes pointed out the potential difficulties of getting content into Wikipedia. But that is a question of ‘How we go about contributing to Wikipedia?‘ rather than ‘Should we?

Can we accept that the answer to the second question should be ‘Yes‘ so that we can explore ways of addressing the first question?

Posted in standards, Wikipedia | 11 Comments »

It’s Now Probably Time To Ditch Flash

Posted by Brian Kelly on 28 June 2010

From 2001-2005 UKOLN and the AHDS provided the Technical Advisory Service for the NOF-digitise programme.  Our initial task was to summarise the open standards which funded projects should be using in order to ensure interoperability and  to support the long-term preservation of the digitised resources.

The technical standards (which are no longer available on the People’s Network Web site) provided information on various open standards including standards which had been developed by the W3C, including SMIL and SVG.  However, as I’ve described previously, these standards failed to achieve significant acceptance in the market place and so, in order to ensure that the projects could deliver engaging services, the requirement to make use of open standards was relaxed, with such proprietary formats being acceptable provided documentation was provided on the reasons for the use  of proprietary solutions.

That was the position around 2001-2002. But now, as we’ve heard in a TechCrunch post on Scribd’s Decision To Dump Flash Pays Off, User Engagement Triples, there is a growing believe that Flash is on its way out with HTML5 providing a more effective standards-based solution.

You may think that the lesson is that open standards are better than proprietary ones – but I would suggest that this example shows the danger of mandating use of open standards at too early a stage and that alternative open standards may eventually emerge as winners.

The difficulty will be in learning from such lessons and avoiding requiring use of open standards if this will eventually be seen to be a mistaken decision.  Perhaps the lesson from the open alternatives to Flash is that it can take over 5 years before such alternatives are mature enough for wide-scale deployment?

Posted in standards | 3 Comments »

“Scrapping Flash and Betting the Company on HTML5″

Posted by Brian Kelly on 24 May 2010

Scrapping Flash

We are “Scrapping Flash and betting the company of HTML5” says the CTO of Scribd (the document sharing service) according to an article published recently in TechCrunch. But this doesn’t seem to be as much of a risk as the headline implies as, according to the article “Adobe’s much-beleaguered Flash is about to take another hit and online documents are finally going to join the Web on a more equal footing“. As the article goes on to say “Scribd is joining a chorus of companies from Apple to Microsoft in siding with HTML5 over Flash. Tomorrow only 200,000 of the most popular documents will be available in HTML5, but eventually all of them will be switched over“. The article goes on to point out that “When it’s done, Scribd alone will convert billions of document pages into Web pages“.

Open Standards and the NOF-digi Programme

Good, you may think, it’s about time we made greater use of open standards. And this sentiment underpinned various standards documents I have contributed to since about 1996 for the JISC and the cultural heritage sector.  As an example consider the NOF-digitise Technical Advisory Service which was provided by UKOLN and the AHDS  from 2001-2004.  These two service were commissioned to document the open standards to be used by this national digitisation programme. So we described open standards, such as SMIL and SVG, and, despite warning of the dangers in mandating premature adoption of open standards, the first version of the standards document did not address the potential difficulties in developing services based on these immature W3C standards.

Unsurprisingly, once the project had received their funding and began to commission development work we received questions such asDoes anyone have any thoughts on the use of file formats such as Flash or SVG in projects? There is no mention of their use in the technical specifications so I  wondered whether their suitability or otherwise had been considered“. I can remember the meeting we had with the NOF-digitise progamme managers after receiving such queries and the difficulty policy makers had in appreciating that simply mandating use of open standards might be inappropriate.

Our response was to explain the reasons why open standards were, in principle, to be preferred over use of proprietary formats:

The general advice is that where the job can be done effectively using non-proprietary solutions, and avoiding plug-ins, this should be done. If there is a compelling case for making use of proprietary formats or formats that require the user to have a plug-in then that case can be made in the business plan, provided this case does not contradict any of the MUST requirements of the nof technical guidelines document.

Flash is a proprietary solution, which is owned by Macromedia.  As with any proprietary solutions there are dangers in adopting it as a solution: there is no guarantee that readers will remain free in the long term, readers (and authoring tools) may only be available on popular platforms, the future of the format would be uncertain if the company went out of business, was taken over, etc.

However we did acknowledge the difficulties of forcing projects to use open standards and concluded:

To, to summarise, if you *require* the functionality provided by Flash, you will need to be aware of the longer term dangers of adopting it.  You should ensure that you have a migration strategy so that you can move to more open standards, once they become more widely deployed.

We subsequently recommended updates to the projects’ reporting mechanism so that projects had to respond to the following questions before use of proprietary formats would be accepted:

(a) Area in which compliance will not be achieved

(b) Explain why compliance will not be achieved including research on appropriate open standards)

(c) Describe the advantages and disadvantages of your proposed solution

(d) Describe your migration strategies in case of problems

Our FAQ provided an example of how these questions might be answered in the case of use of Flash. What we expected (and perhaps hoped for) back then was that there would be a steady growth in the development of tools which supported open standards and the benefits of the standards would lead to a move away from Flash.  This, however, hasn’t happened. Instead it seems to have been the lack of support for Flash on the iPhone and the iPad which has led to recent high-profile squabbles, in particular Steve Job’s open letter giving his Thoughts on Flash. His letter points out that

Flash was created during the PC era – for PCs and mice. Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short.

and concludes by saying:

New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too). Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.

It seems, according to Jobs, that it is the requirements of the mobile platform which is leading to the move towards open standards on both mobile and PC platforms.

Eight Years Later

About eight years later it now seems appropriate to move away from Flash and, instead, use HTML5. This long period between initial announcements of new open standards and their appropriateness for mainstream use will differ for different standards – in the case of RDF, for example, the initial family of standards were published in 2004 but it has only been in the past year or so that interest in the deployment of Linked Data services has gained wider popularity. But the dangers of forcing use of open standards is, I hope, becoming better understood.

And this is where I disagree with a recent article by Glyn Moody who, in a recent tweet, suggested that “European Commission Betrays Open Standards – http://bit.ly/bl6HJt pusillanimity“. In an article published in ComputerWorld UK Glyn argued that the “European Commission Betrays Open Standards“. I have skimmed through the latest leak [PDF format] of an imminent Digital Agenda for Europe. What I noticed is that the document calls for “Promoting better use of standards” which argues that “Public authorities should make better use of the full range of relevant standards when procuring hardware, software and iT systems”.  It is the failure of the document in “promoting open standards and all the benefits that these bring” which upsets Glyn, who adds that “accept[ing] ‘pervasive technologies’ that *aren’t* based on standards” is “a clear reference to Microsoft“.

But maybe the European Commission have understood the complexities of the deployment of open standards and the risks that mandating their use across public sector organisations might entail.  And let’s not forget that,in the UK, we have a history of mandating open standards which have failed to take off – remember OSI networking protocols?

Pointing out that open standards don’t always live up to their promise and it make take several years before they are ready for mainstream use is applying an evidence-based approach to policy. Surely something we need more of, n’est-ce pas?

Posted in HTML, standards | 1 Comment »

The Disappearing HTTP:// Protocol

Posted by Brian Kelly on 19 May 2010

“Google kills ‘http’ URLs”!

An announcement was made last month on the ZDNet blog: “Google kills ‘http’ URLs; about time to follow suit?“.  The post describe how “Google’s Chrome browser will no longer include http:// as part of the URL field“. The post went on to add that “this has indeed ruffled some veteran’s feathers” as  “FTP, HTTPS and other protocols which are non-HTTP are still used“.  However Zack Whittacker, the author of the post felt that “I don’t think it’s that much of a deal, frankly. When have you ever heard on the television, radio, or in print media the use of ‘http://’?

He’s correct – if you listen to the TV or radio you don’t hear an announcer invited the audience to visit “aitch-tee-tee-pee-colon-slash-slash“. The scheme name in URIs has become invisible – an example of a comment I made in a recent IWR interview in which, having been invited to describe how much of a techno-geek I was using an ‘IWR’s digitometer’ “My iPod Touch, mobile phone and PC are now my pen and paper – not technologies but essential tools I use every day“.

The ‘Disappearance’ of HTTP

But what does the disappearance of a technology tell us? In the case of the growing disappearance of the HTTP scheme from URIs from the perspective of the general public I think it tells us that the standard is so ubiquitous that it no longer needs to be referred to.  The flip side of this is when something ubiquitous starts to become challenged by something new that we have to start referring to the old thing in new days – remember, for example, when watches were just watches, and we didn’t need to differentiate between analogue and digital watches?

The ZDNet blog post, then, provides us with a reminder of the success of the HTTP protocol – it has become so successful that we don’t think about it any more.

But how did HTTP achieve such a dominant role?  I have been around the Web environment to have seen the evolution of HTTP from HTTP 0.9 through to HTTP 1.0 and then HTTP 1.1 – and I’ve even read all three specifications (although many years ago, so please don’t test me)!

If I recall correctly, HTTP 0.9 was the first published version of the HyperText Transport Protocol, which I used when I first encountered the Web (or W3 as it was often referred to in the early 90s). This had the merits of being simple – a single page I have recently discovered.

HTTP/1.0 introduced MIME types so that documents retrieved over the Web could be processed by helper applications based on the MIME type rather than the file name suffix – much of the additional length of the specification is due to the formal documentation of features provided in HTTP 0.9, I think.

Then HTTP/1.1 was released, which, I remember,  provided support for caching (the UK was the first country to support a national caching service across a large community – UK HE – and the protocol support for caching in browsers and servers introduced in HTTP 1.1 was needed in order to allow old versions of resources held in caches to be refreshed ). A paper on “Key Differences between HTTP/1.0 and HTTP/1.1” provides a more detailed summary of the enhancements provided in HTTP/1.1.

And after that – nothing.  A successful standard goes through a small number of refinements until the bugs, flaws and deficiencies are ironed out and is then stable for a significant period.

The Flaws in HTTP

But is this really the case?  HTTP may be ubiquitous, but it has flaws which were initially pointed out by Simon Spero way back in 1995 (I should mention that I met Simon last month at the WWW 2010 conference after discussing the history of HTTP in the coffee queue!).

Building on this work in November 1998 an IETF INTERNET-DRAFT on “HTTP-NG Overview: Problem Statement, Requirements, and Solution Outline” was written which pointed out that “HTTP/1.1 is becoming strained modularity wise as well as performance wise“. The document pointed out that:

Modularity is an important kind of simplicity, and HTTP/1.x isn’t very modular. If we look carefully at HTTP/1.x, we can see it addresses three layers of concerns, but in a way that does not cleanly separate those layers: message transport, general-purpose remote method invocation, and a particular set of methods historically focused on document processing (broadly construed to include things like forms processing and searching).

The solution to these problems was HTTP/NG, which would “produce a simpler but more capable and more flexible system than the one currently provided by HTTP“. And who could argue against the value of having a simpler yet more flexible standard that is used throughout the Web?

We then saw a HTTP-NG Working Group proposed within the W3C which produced a number of documents – but nothing after 1999.

We now know that, despite the flaws which were well-documented over 10 years ago, there has been insufficient momentum to deploy a better version of HTTP/1.1.  And there has also been a failure to deploy alternative transfer protocols to HTTP – I can recall in the mid 1990s former colleague at Newcastle University who were involved in reliable distributed object-oriented research work suggesting that IIOP (Internet Inter-ORB Protocol) could well replace HTTP.

Conclusions

What can we conclude from this history lesson?  I would suggest that HTTP hasn’t succeeded because of its simplicity and elegance – rather it has succeed despite its flaws and limitations.  It is ‘good enough’ – despite the objections from researchers who can point out better ways of doing things.   This relates to a point made by Erik Duval who, in a position paper presented at CETIS’s Future of Interoperability Standards meeting argued that “Standards Are Not Research” and pointed out that “Once the standardization process is started, the focus shifts to consensus building“.

The consensus for HTTP is very much “it’s good enough – we don’t care about it any more“.  So much so that it is becoming invisible.  I wonder if there are other examples of Web standards which have stable for over a decade and we fail to notice them?

Posted in Addressing, standards | 1 Comment »

Criteria for Successful and Unsuccessful Web Standards

Posted by Brian Kelly on 18 March 2010

Success and Failure Criteria for IETF Standards

As Erik Duval commented on my recent report on the CETIS Future of Interoperability Standards meeting, “it would be very useful to have more explicit criteria for the success (and, as pointed out in the meeting, for the failure!) of open standards“.

Coincidentally the IETF have recently set up a wiki which aims to summarise successful and unsuccessful IETF standards. The wiki page on Applications Area is the most interesting for me, although the IETF’s views on applications (MIME, IMAP, HTTP, etc.) differs from mine!

The table has a 5-point scale on usage (take-up):

++ :  became an essential capability
+  :  gained significant usefulness
0  :  outcome still pending
-  :  only gained minor usefulness
-- :  complete failure

>  :  prompted extensive derivative work (optional additional ranking)

MIME, POP3 and HTTP seem to be regarded as successful (ranked ++ or ++>) whereas Atom  is only ranked ‘+’ and AtomPub gets a ‘-‘.

In the Web area what might be regarded as the successful and unsuccessful standards? And how do we judge when a standard is successful or unsuccessful?

Success and Failure Criteria for Web Standards

In a previous post I asked “Why Did SMIL and SVG Fail?” These, then, are two standards developed by the W3C which have failed to live up to their expectations and my blog post suggests reasons for such failures. But what general criteria might be used for identifying successful and unsuccessful Web standards? My attempt to seek an answer to this question is to look at some of the standards themselves and to consider whether they might be regarded as successful or unsuccessful and use this as a means of identifying the appropriate criteria.

HTML is clearly a successful W3C standard.  It is widely deployed and has been widely accepted in the market place with a wide range of creation and viewing tools available, both as open source and licensed products.  The HTML standard has also evolved over time, with standards published for HTML 1, HTML 2, HTML 3.2, HTML 4 and XHTML 1, and the HTML 5 standard currently being developed. The XHTML 2.o proposed standard in contrast, illustrates a failed attempt to provide an alternative development path for HTML which addressed shortcomings in the original series of HTML standards by removing the need to provide backwards compatibility with existing standards and viewers.

Observations:  The benefits of simplicity and market acceptance can trump the technical elegance of alternative which do not have a clear roadmap for significant deployment.

CSS is another W3C standard which can be regarded as successful. Unlike HTML, however, it had a somewhat difficult birth, having to compete with presentations tags which became standardised in HTML 3.2 and the flawed support in browsers which were at the time widely deployed (e.g. early version of the Netscape Navigator browser). Despite ongoing support problems (which nowadays relate to versions of the Internet Explorer browser)  CSS is widely regarded as the most appropriate way of described ways in which HTML structural elements should be displayed in a Web browser.

Observations:  Despite an overlong gestation period, standards may eventually become widely accepted.

XML can be regarded as another successful W3C. Interestingly since the XML 1.0 specification was ratified in  February 1998 there have been four further editions which have addressed various shortcomings together with a release of XML 1.1. There have also been two edition of XML 1.1, which provides independence from specific Unicode versions. The W3C Web site states thatYou are encouraged to create or generate XML 1.0 documents if you do not need the new features in XML 1.1; XML Parsers are expected to understand both XML 1.0 and XML 1.1.“.

Obervations: Successful standards may be stable and not require regular developments to provide new features.

The RSS family of standards is somewhat confusing, with RSS having several meanings, with  RDF Site Summary and Really Simple Syndication describing RSS 1.0 and RSS 2.0, which are independently managed forks in the development of the syndication format developed by Netscape and known, at one stage, as Rich Site Summary. The IETF has developed a complementary standard known as Atom, which has attempted to address the confusions caused in the forking of the standard and the uncertainties related to the governance of RSS 1.0 and RSS 2.0.  Despite the confusions behind the scenes RSS is widely accepted as a stable and mature syndication standard, with RSS feeds being provided as standard by many blogging platforms.  RSS is also increasingly used by other applications and development environments, such as Yahoo Pipes!, provide environments for developers to process RSS feeds.

Observations: Despite confusions over the multiple versions and governance, the simplicity provided by RSS has been valuable in its success.

JavaScript was initially developed by Netscape’s. According to Wikipedia the name was chosen as “a marketing ploy by Netscape to give JavaScript the cachet of what was then the hot new web-programming language“). The benefits of a client-side language resulted in Microsoft developing a JavaScript dialect which they called JScript. Eventually JavaScript became standardised under the name ECMAScript, although this name tends not to be widely used. Although in its early days interoperability problems and the lack of support for JavaScript in assistive technologies resulted in professional Web developers tending to avoid use of JavaScript, the popularity of AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) in Web 2.0 applications provided tangible usability benefits to end users. With developments such as ARIA which enable usability benefits to be made available to users of assistive technologies we can now regard JavaScript as being a successful standard for the development of usable and interactive Web services.

Observations: Although competition between software vendors may initially result in interoperability problems, such competition may also help to demonstrate that there is a role in the marketplace for a new standard, with interoperability problems being resolved afterwards.

What Does This Tell Us?

HTML, CSS, XML, RSS and JavaScript are all standards which professional Web developers would probably be expected to have expertise in. But the standards themselves have been developed in different ways, with HTML’s developments. But despite the importance of these standards it would appear that there aren’t any clearly identifiable criteria which can be used to establish the reasons for the successes.   And the successes within W3C for HTML, CSS and XML have not been repeated for other W3C standards such as SMIL and SVG. So I have to admit defeat in my attempt to clearly  identify success criteria for Web standards based on a small number of examples – and I haven’t attempted to address the perhaps more contentious issues of the criteria for failed standards.  Can anyone help – or are we condemned to wait for the marketplace to eventually let us know what next year’s failures will be?

Posted in standards, W3C | 3 Comments »

H.264 Format Free To End Users Until (At Least) 2016

Posted by Brian Kelly on 4 February 2010

Shortly after I published my post on “iPad, Flash, HTML 5 and Standards” it seems that the an announcement was made regarding the licence conditions for Web use use of the H.264 video format. Philip Roy alerted me to a press release (PDF format) which announced that the licence deal for H.264 has just been extended until 2016. The press release states that:

MPEG LA announced today that its AVC Patent Portfolio License will continue not to charge royalties for Internet Video that is free to end users (known as Internet Broadcast AVC Video) during the next License term from January 1, 2011 to December 31, 2015. Products and services other than Internet Broadcast AVC Video continue to be royalty-bearing, and royalties to apply during the next term will be announced before the end of 2010.

So although  Christopher Blizzard was correct when he pointed out that the licence conditions mean “that something that’s free today might not be free tomorrow” it is also true that something that’s free today may continue to be free tomorrow.

A post by Christopher Blizzard entitled “HTML5 video and H.264 – what history tells us and why we’re standing with the web” encourages readers to learn from the lessons of GIF. I can remember what happened just after Christmas in 1999 – the owners of the GIF image format (which was being widely used on the Web) announced that they intended to charge for its use – and these charges would apply to developers who made tools which created or edited GIF images and also Web site owners who made use of GIF images on their Web site (who would have to pay at least $5,000 for use of GIF images!).

As a direct result of this threat to open use of the Web the W3C coordinated development of the PNG (Portable Network Graphic) file format, which provide a royalty-free alternative to GIF which was also had richer functionality.

Christopher Blizzard argues that this example illustrates why we must avoid use of formats which have such licensing conditions associated with them.  But there is another view.  Although the PNG format has its merits sadly support for the format is flawed. After it was released viewing Web pages containing PNG images in the most widely used browser caused problems for the end user. And I was told by a colleague recently that even today Web pages containing PNG images which are viewed in Internet Explorer version 6 still cause problems.

I also understand Unisys did not enforce the licence conditions on users of the GIF format and, as described in a Wikipedia article, “Unisys was completely unable to generate any good publicity and continued to be vilified by individuals and organizations“.

The patent for the compression algorithm used in GIF has now expired, so there are no barriers to use of GIF.  Might the lessons be that it is dangerous to adopt an open standard before tools which support it correctly are widely deployed (rather than just freely available) and that user pressure may result in owners of patented formats being unwilling to enforce payment for use of their formats?

Posted in standards | 7 Comments »

iPad, Flash, HTML 5 and Standards

Posted by Brian Kelly on 3 February 2010

Lack of Flash Support by the iPad – Bad News or Good?

A post I wrote in November 2008 entitled “Why Did SMIL and SVG Fail?” has been referenced by the Stevie 5 is Alive blog. The post on the lack of Flash support for the iPad device says “Apple: Thank You for Leaving Flash Out“.

As the author, a ‘geek and entrepreneur’, correctly points out SMIL, the open XML-based multimedia standards developed by the W3C “was virtually assassinated from the landscape“. He goes on to point our that:

Quicktime X no longer opens and runs SMIL files (Quicktime Player 7 does, and it’s still in the spec). Quicktime on the iPhone won’t handle SMIL. WYSIWYG SMIL editors now are nowhere to be found. Evolution of the SMIL specification slowed to a crawl. The once potentially vibrant ecosystem around open standards has withered to nearly nothing – with obscure projects like Ambulant remaining as last-chance efforts to keep an open format available to the world for interactive media.

In its place we have seen Flash dominating the market place. The problem is that Flash “is a vendor proprietary format, with a closed ecosystem. Adobe makes the flash player. Adobe makes the flash development tools. Sure some other companies provide streamlined development tools based on Adobe’s APIs (like SWiSH Max) but Adobe controls what they can and can’t do with those APIs.

Perhaps, then, the lack of Flash support in the iPad is to be welcomed, particularly in light of the recent announcement about YouTube’s HTML5 Video Player, which does not require Flash support, but instead supports native video streaming.

A desire to move away from Flash was expressed at a meeting I attended last week when I heard that Flash seems to be blocked by firewalls in certain public sector organisations. “HTML 5 will avoid the need for Flash” was a response made to this comment, although the lack of support for HTML 5 in current versions of Internet Explorer is likely to be a barrier to its deployment.

Complexities of Video and HTML 5

But rather than a lack of support for standards being a problem, once again, for just Microsoft, use of the open source FireFox browser to view HTML 5 pages used by services such as YouTube will not necessarily work. Although HTML5 defines a standard way to embed video in a Web page, using the element. FireFox currently supports the Ogg Theora, Ogg Vorbis and WAV formats – but not the widely used H.264 format (codec).

The H.264 family of standards were developed to “create a standard capable of providing good video quality at substantially lower bit rates than previous standards“. But despite its popularity as described in Wikipediavendors of products which make use of H.264/AVC are expected to pay patent licensing royalties for the patented technology that their products use“.  The costs of use of the format are difficult to determine: Christopher Blizzard, in a post looking at the history of patented technologies, points out that although “H.264 is currently liberally licensed [it] also has a license that changes from year to year, depending on market conditions. This means that something that’s free today might not be free tomorrow.” As for what those costs may be an article on “H.264 Royalties: what you need to know” states that:

… a one-time payment of $2,500 “per AVC transmission encoder” or an annual fee starting at “$2,500 per calendar year per Broadcast Markets of at least 100,000 but no more than 499,999 television households, $5,000 per calendar year per Broadcast Market which includes at least 500,000 but no more than 999,999 television households, and $10,000 per calendar year per Broadcast Market which includes at 1,000,000 or more television households.

A Dive Into HTML 5 post on Video on the Web also points out that “The fees are potentially somewhat steeper for internet broadcasts” and “starting in 2011, it’s going to cost a whole lot more“.

As well as the issues of the licensing costs (likely to be difficult to be paid for by an open source company such as FireFox which doesn’t have an income stream related to its core product), there is also a need to consider the principles involved: the success of the Web has been based on open standards for which use has not required payment of royalty feeds.

Is There an Open Alternative to H.264?

Are there open alternatives to H.264 which aren’t encumbered with licensing restrictions? The answer is yes:  Ogg is an open standard container format for video which is unencumbered by any known patents. Firefox 3.5, Chrome 4, and Opera 10 provide native support for the format without the need for any platform-specific plugins through use of the  Ogg container format, Ogg video (“Theora”) and Ogg audio (“Vorbis”) .

Surely the answer to the licensing complexities of H.264 is simple – make use of Ogg instead?  Robert Accettura has given his interpretations of the reasons why Apple and Google appear to be willing to support H.264:

Apple’s Argument: Hardware decoding for H.264 is available on various devices (including the iPhone). Hardware decoding means the devices CPU does not have to carry out this function, resulting in better performance and battery life. As there does not appear to be a hardware Theora decoder available use of the H.264 standard can be deployed using existing technologies.

Google’s Argument: In a message sent to the WhatWG mailing list last year Chris DiBona argued thatIf [you] were to switch to theora and maintain even a semblance of the current youtube quality it would take up most available bandwidth across the internet“. Although others have queried this argument (and an Ars technica post on “Decoding the HTML 5 video codec debate” explored this issue in more detail) the bandwidth costs of accessing streaming video will be a factor in choosing an appropriate format, particularly for companies such as Google who are significant providers of streaming video due to their video streaming services such as YouTube.

What is To be Done?

In a recent post on “Reflections on CETIS’s “Future of Interoperability Standards” Meeting” I described how there was a view that policy makers tended to have a naive view of open standards, perhaps feeling that an open standard would be guaranteed to provide simple, elegant solutions whilst bringing down costs by avoiding reliance of vendors of proprietary formats.  In response Erik Duval pointed out that “I certainly strongly agree that policy makers sometimes have a somewhat naive view of the standards process – but then so did we when we started this?“.

Erik is certainly correct that developers and others working in IT will have a tendency to gloss over real world deployment issues – on reflection I was guilty of this in my article on “HTML Is Dead!” which argued that the future for HTML was based on XHTML. So here’s my brief summary related to the complexities of video and HTML 5.

The video element in the draft HTML 5 standard will allow Web pages to have embedded videos which do not require use of plugin technologies (such as the proprietary Flash format which is widely used twoay).  The format of such videos is not defined in the HTML 5 standard – it is being left to the market place, the browser vendors,  to provide such support. Google (with their Chrome browser) and Apple (with their Safari browser) currently support the H.264 video format, but since this format uses patented technologies use of this requires the browser vendors to pay a licence fee.   FireFox feel that the open Ogg / Theodora format  should be used, but Google and Apple argue that this format has limitations.

Since Google and Apple are both significant providers of video and multimedia content (with YouTube in the case of the former and iTunes for the latter)  the decisions they make regarding formats for the content they provide is likely to influence the user community’s preferences, since users will have no interest in the complexities of codeces, patents, etc.

There may be ways of circumventing these difficulties, by eventual agreements by the major software vendors or by the provision of alternative environment (e.g. the Google Chrome Frame plugin for Internet Explorer or, as described in Ryan Paul’s blog post as “The undesirable middle-ground” of “expos[ing] each platform’s underlying media playback engine through the HTML 5 video element” which appears to be technically possible but would “heighten the risk of fragmentation“).

What are your plans for streaming video?!

Posted in standards | 12 Comments »

Reflections on CETIS’s “Future of Interoperability Standards” Meeting

Posted by Brian Kelly on 14 January 2010

On Tuesday I attended a “Future of Interoperability Standards” meeting which was organised by JISC CETIS.  The interest in the subject area can be gauged by the popularity of the meeting with about 40 people managing to arrive at Bolton despite the problems with the snow, with attendees travelling from as far as Belgium, Norway, Spain, Greece and the US. And the participants were willing to contribute actively in helping to identify limitations with the processes for the development of interoperability standards and approaches for addressing such limitations.  The active participation took place not only on the day but also in advance of the meeting, with 20 participants having submitted a position paper prior to the meeting.

In my position paper I described “An Opportunities and Risks Framework For Standards“.  In the position paper, which was published on this blog, I described some of the failings of open standards to live up to their expectations – ideas which I have previously described in several peer-reviewed papers dating back to 2003:

These papers were co-authored with colleagues from other JISC-funded services including AHDS, JISC TechDis, JISC CETIS and JISC OSS Watch together with Eduserv, as well as with colleagues from UKOLN.

But despite the limitations of open standards and the dangers of an uncritical belief in their benefits which experts from a number of JISC-funded and related organisations have identified there is a danger, I feel, that policy-makers are unaware of such limitations and seek to apply pressure to encourage (or perhaps even mandate) adoption of open standards far too early in their life cycle.

I was really pleased to discover that we were not alone in such views.  The focus of the CETIS meeting was exploring ways in which more informal approaches to standardisation processes can address the limitations of the more formal approaches.  The limitations of the traditional approaches to the development of standards in an e-learning context did not need to be addressed as many of the participants, most of whom had been involved in standardisation activities (in some case for several decades) , were well aware of the failings. Tore Hoel summarised the concerns succinctly in his position paper:

… the interoperability standards in the LET domain failed miserably. Second, the ICT developed more to the benefit of Learning, Education and Training than anybody could dream of. All of sudden, anybody (well, so we claim) can do almost anything with technology to support what they want in learning, e.g., finding information, expressing views from different perspectives, building communities, etc. Who asks any more for standards? Well, the enduser shouldn’t anyway, but then the ones that should ask for LET standards are not very enthusiastic either!

That’s right – ‘interoperability standards in the Learning, Education and Training domain have failed miserably’ (and in other domains, as I pointed out recently in the context of W3C standards).  And we have seen a huge range of technological innovations which are being adopted enthusiastically by many in the user community where there hasn’t been a significant focus placed in the development of new standards. And many developers are now also engaging enthusiastically  in exploiting the opportunities which are now available which don’t require support for slow-moving and possibly complex standards.

So there was broad agreement on the need for an alternative approach to the development of interoperability standards. The afternoon session explored ways in which informal approaches to the development of standards might help – and I should mention the position paper on “An agile approach to the development of Dublin Core Application Profiles” by my colleague Paul Walk which illustrates an example of an agile approach to the development of Application profiles (with an embedded video clip which illustrates the approaches which have been taken).

The discussions also addressed possible limitations of such approaches and ways in which such limitations could be addressed.  The concerns I highlighted focussed on the policy-makers, including the need to ensure that policy-makers were aware of the limitations of standards-making processes, the dangers of mandating standards prematurely, the dangers that mandating procurement of IT systems based on open standards would inhibit the take-up of emerging new standards and the dangers that a view that there was a preferred hierarchy for standards making organisations would be a barrier to the take-up of standards which have been developed through more agile processes.

I’m looking forward to reading the synthesis of the discussions which staff at JISC CETIS will be publishing shortly.

Posted in standards | Tagged: , | 15 Comments »

Will The SVG Standard Come Back to Life?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 11 January 2010

In November 2008 I asked “Why Did SMIL and SVG Fail?”  The post suggested reasons why the W3C’s Scaleable Vector Graphics standard (which became a W3C recommendation in 2003) had failed to be widely deployed in the market place.

In the comments to my post a number of people pointed at the lack of support for SVG in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer as a significant factor in SVG’s failure to be adopted.

Despite the economic gloom the new year has seen some good news with the announcement by Patrick Dengler, Senior Program Manager of the Internet Explorer Team that “Microsoft Joins W3C SVG Working Group“.  And as described in an article on “Microsoft joins IE SVG standards party” published in The Register: “Commentors responding to Dengler’s post overwhelmingly welcomed Microsoft’s move, with people hoping it’ll lead to SVG support in IE 9“.

So what are the lessons regarding a standard released in 2003  for which it takes 7 years before a company which appears to be essential for its successful deployment shows interest. And even if IE 9 does have support for the standard how long will it be before the user community discards the legacy browsers such as IE 6, 7 and 8.  Let’s not forget that there is still significant usage of IE 6.

The lesson: we tend to be too over-optimistic of the benefits of open standards and their take-up.

The response: we need to take a risk assessment and risk management approach to standards.

Posted in standards, W3C | 5 Comments »

An Opportunities and Risks Framework For Standards

Posted by Brian Kelly on 6 January 2010

Future of Interoperability Standards Meeting

I have been invited to participate at the CETIS “Future of Interoperability Standards Meeting 2010” which will be held at the University of Bolton next week.

I have been invited to submit a position papers providing thoughts or opinions on the experience of developing both formal and informal specifications and standards, working with standards bodies and potential ways forward to achieve interoperability.

I would be concerned if the development community simply revisited top-down approaches to the development of standards (“it’s a standard from a mature and well-established standardisation body”) and focussed on the latest fashionable area for standardisation, without acknowledging past failures to live up to expectations.

My position paper, given below, argues that we should be sceptical about the potential of standards and have a more realistic view of the standardisation processes. And just as in other IT development activities the outputs of standardisation activities are liable to fail if there is a lack of engagement with the end users of the standards (typically the development community). An ‘opportunities and risks framework’ is described which is intended for use by organisations considering use of open standards.

Developers Can Be Excited by The ‘Potential’

At the “Universities API” workshop session held at the CETIS 2009 conference I can recall Tony Hirst at one point getting excited at some aspects of use of ‘University’  APIs. “Potentially” I seem to recall Tony saying  “exciting things could happen” – although I forget the specific details of the exciting things (and I am paraphrasing his remarks).

A Need For A Realistic Approach

My colleague Paul Walk responded by repeating the word “potentially” in a tone of voice which suggested that he was rather sceptical of the assumption that making policy decisions based on their potential was a desirable approach to technical developments.

Paul has recently expanded on his thoughts in a blog post entitled “An infrastructure service anti-pattern“. In the post Paul provides a definition:

An anti-pattern is a design approach which seems plausible and attractive but which has been shown, with practice to be non-optimal or even counter-productive. It’s a pattern because it keeps coming up, which means it’s worth recording and documenting as such. It’s anti, because, in practice, it’s best avoided….

Paul Walk's diagram of anti-patterns (from http://blog.paulwalk.net/2009/12/07/an-infrastructure-service-anti-pattern/Paul illustrates the anti-patent which concerns him in a diagram which highlights aspects of a service “are the product of little more than speculation“.

Paul concludes by arguing that:

In the end, the investment in creating a user-facing application based on an expectation of future demand which doesn’t materialise is wasted while, at the same time, the investment in providing unused machine interfaces is also wasted.

Paul’s concerns about wasted investment are of particular relevance at a time when we have heard that the “Hefce budget to be slashed by £915m over three year“: an article published in the Times Higher Education – and dated 31 December (not a Happy New Year for higher education!).

Application To Open Standards

Paul’s post got me thinking about how this argument might be applied in the context of the development, selection and use of open standards.

In the past there has been a tendency for those involved in IT development work (including policy makers, managers and developers) to avoid looking too closely into the standards making process. Indeed. as in a recent post and talk entitled “Standards Are Like Sausages” I cited Charles McCathieNevile “Standards are like sausages … I like sausages – but I’m not keen on exploring too closely how they’re made!”  The sausage analogy, incidentally, seems to have been coined by Otto Bismark is relation to the process of making laws, with Keith Boone (who was a participant in W3C’s standardisation of the DOM) using it in the context of IT standards on his Healthcare Standards blog.

I’ll not go into any details about the problems with the standards-making processes –  read Keith Boone’s post for examples of the difficulties which are encountered in such activities and the reference to “stories of the battles between two of the major players on how DOM2 would go“.

But we can see an example of the time and effort which went into the development of W3C’s XHTML 2 family of specifications which included the XHTML 2 draft which was published way back in 2002 – work which officially ceased at the end of 2009. A key design principle of XHTML 2 was thatit is not intended to be backward compatible with its earlier version” – this standard aimed to start from scratch in the development of a much more robust and elegant language.

But after a period in which W3C was supporting the development of a new XHTML 2 standard and the evolution of the existing HTML family of document markup standards,  the W3C are now supporting the development of HTML 5.  And, as described in the HTML 5 FAQ, this standard will be based on patterns of successful implementation of features: “If browsers don’t widely implement a feature, or if authors don’t use a feature, or if the uses of the feature are inconsequential of fundamentally wrong or damaging, then, after due consideration, features will be removed“.

We seem to be seeing a move away from features in standards which may be potentially useful, to a more evolutionary approach to the standardisation process, in which those aspects which can be demonstrated to have buy-in from the market sector (browser vendors) become standardised.

Difficulties For The Consumers of Open Standards

If the processes for the development of open standards has such flaws it should not be surprising if an uncritical acceptance of open standards can cause problems for the consumers of open standards, such as those involved in IT development work.

As I described in a talk I gave at the CILIP Scotland 2009 conference on ”From eLib to NOF-digi and Beyond“ a number of the open standards (such as SMIL and SVG) which were felt to provide the basis for development work failed to gain acceptance. And might it not be interesting to seek to estimate not the financial benefits of use of open standards but the costs that the sector might have incurred through use of failed standards (might we, for example, have developed a standards-based 3D immersive environment based on the VRML/Web3d standard, isolating the community from the proprietary Second Life environment which became the main player in this space?).

Perhaps in the 1990s and the early part of this century there was a feeling that the high education community could force acceptance of recommended open standards through mandating their use in funding agreements.  But as we have seen in the wider Web 2.0 context, attempting to mandate technologies in this way leaves the sector vulnerable if the user community refuses to buy into the view – there are now multiple providers of solutions so a top-down approach is unlikely to be successful, except perhaps in niche areas.

An Opportunities and Risks Framework

I feel it would be appropriate to make use of an “opportunities and risks” approach to the development, selection of use of open standards. In the past there seems to have been, I feel, a largely uncritical belief in the opportunities which can be provided by open standards (such as platform- and application-independence; freedom to choose from multiple providers of solutions; cost-reduction through this freedom of choice and avoidance of vendor lock-in; interoperability and long term preservation) with little consideration of the risks.

This needs to change, I feel. Based on the ‘opportunities and risks framework‘ developed to support the use of Social Web services I feel we should take a similar risk assessment and management approach to the development of and use of open standards. And since, despite various examples of failures, open standards are regarded in a positive light, I suggest a change in the word order, so that we make use of an “opportunities and risks framework” to support use of open standards.

So using the latest version of the framework (taken from the paper on “Empowering Users and Institutions: A Risks and Opportunities Framework for Exploiting the Social Web“) we might require use of open standards in development work to document:

Intended use: The specific details of the intended uses of a standard should be provided. A recent example of the limited use of RSS (for alerting and not wider syndication) provides a good example of the need to be open about how standards are to be used – especially if third parties may be expected to make use of the outputs.

Perceived benefits: Let’s not use open standards simply because they are open. Rather there’s a need to provide specific details of the expected benefits. And a time when funding is tight, these benefits should be tangible, and not potential benefits.

Perceived risks: A summary of the perceived risks which use of the standards may entail should be documented.

Missed opportunities: A summary of the missed opportunities and benefits which a failure to make use of standards should be documented.

Costs: A summary of the costs and other resource implications of use of the standards should be documented.

Risk minimisation: Once the risks have been identified and discussed approaches to risk minimisation should be documented.

Evidence base: Evidence which back up the assertions made in use of the framework.

Revisiting The Open Standards Philosophy

I have argued the need for a user-centred approach to the use of standards and described a mechanism by which the users (i.e. developers) can help to make the selection of appropriate standards. But what about the relevance of open standards themselves?

At a time in which we have heard that “Universities’ annual funding reduced by £398m” and the JISC “Funding postponement for capital funded calls and ITTs” I feel we need to be prepared to apply a critique of the relevance of a development culture which I’ve seen encapsulated in the slogan “Interoperability through open standards“.

Do we want open standards in their own right or do we want the benefits which open standards aim to provide? And do we want open standards for which there are trusted and neutral standards organisations responsible for the governance and maintenance of the standards – or by open standards do we simply mean that the standard isn’t owned by a commercial company?  RSS, for example (in its several guises) provides an example of a format which is widely used and felt to be of importance to the developer community (see Tony Hirst’s OUseful blog for examples of how a variety of freely available tools can be used to process RSS feeds). But might not even proprietary formats and standards be relevant – after all both Adobe’s PDF format and Microsoft’s Office formats were last year adopted as ISO standards. Might not, in some cases at least, proprietary formats have a valuable role to play in market-testing standards which at a later date may become open standards?

Posted in standards | 9 Comments »

Policies on Drugs, Open Standards and Web Accessibility

Posted by Brian Kelly on 2 November 2009

Over the weekend we’ve been hearing about the squabbles between the Government and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Professor David Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council, argued that cannabis was less harmful than alcohol and tobacco and that it was upgraded by the Government to Class B against the council’s advice – for political reasons. In response, as described on the BCC News, the Home Secretary “Johnson defends drugs row sacking”  saying that Professor David Nutt went against a long established principle by straying into politics.

An example of a political expediency taking precedence over evidence, surely? After all, we can predict the headlines in papers such as the Daily Mail if the Advisory Council’s recommendations had been accepted by the government. 

But if we feel that evidence and the need to acknowledge the accompanying complexities should outweigh an approach based on simple slogans would such an approach also be used in the context of IT development work? 

This thought came to me earlier today after reading a tweet from Wilbert Kraan which stated

RT @PeterMcAllister: EU wants to get rid of open standards: http://is.gd/4KMUi (via @brenno) Leaked draft: http://bit.ly/2tTN7X #EUopenS

The accompanying blog post , headlined “EC wil af van open standaarden” begins

De Europese Commissie schrapt in stilte open standaarden voor interoperabiliteit. Het draait nog slechts om ‘open specificaties’, waarbij patenten en betaalde licenties geen taboe meer zijn.”

Friends on Twitter have responded to my request for a translation and suggest that the post on”The European Commission silently scraps interoperability standards” begins with the view that:

The EU has quietly changed its view on open standards and no longer sees patents and paid licensing as taboos”

The EU has changed its mind on open standards?  That sound intriguing! So I’ve skimmed though the “European Interoperability Framework for European Public Services (version 2.0)”  document (PDF file) – which, I should add, is clearly labelled as a work in progress.

This report is of interest to me as I recently gave a talk at the ILI 2009 conference entitled “Standards Are Like Sausages: Exploiting the Potential of Open Standards“.  In the talk I described how my early work in promoting open standards (which date back to my contributions to the eLib Standards document back in 1995) can, in retrospect, be seen to be naive. Over the years I have found myself recommending open standards, especially those developed by the W3C, which have failed to gain significant acceptance in the market place. And, just as, the Daily Mail knows it is safe to promote a zero tolerance approach to drugs to its core audience, I was also aware that promoting open standards is a safe thing to do in a public sector IT development context.  But over the years I have begun to realise that such recommendations need to be informed by evidence – and if the evidence is lacking there may be a need for a more refined approach, rather than a continuation of the “One final push” approach. 

These views also apply in the context of Web accessibility. I have argued for several years that an approach based solely on technical conformance with a set of accessibility standards, which fails to acknowledge the diversity of use cases, definitions of accessibility, limitations of relevant tools available in the market place and the resource implications of conforming with such flawed approaches, is the wrong approach to take.

In light of this I was very interested in what the EU’s draft document on the European Interoperability Framework for European Public Services had to say.

What did I find in this document about the European Interoperability Framework (EIF) which aims to promote and support the delivery:

1.5.1 The Political and Historical Context of Interoperability in the EU:: I welcome the section which acknowledges that political and historical issues have a significant role to play in enhancing the delivery of interoperable services.  

2.2 Underlying Principle 1: Subsidiarity and Proportionality. This section goes on to add that “The subsidiarity principle implies that EU decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen. In other words, the Union does not take action unless EU action is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level“. It the context of IT services, I see this as endorsing a user-focussed approach to development work, rather than the centralised imposition of solutions. Section 2.3 Underlying Principle 2: User Centricity reinforces this approach.

2.4 Underlying Principle 3: Inclusion and Accessibility. This section goes on to add that “Inclusion aims to take full advantage of opportunities offered by new technologies to overcome social and economic disadvantages and exclusion. Accessibility aims at ensuring people with disabilities and the elderly access to public services so they can experience the same service levels as all other citizens.

We then read that “Inclusion and accessibility usually encompass multichannel delivery. Traditional service delivery channels may need to co-exist with new channels established using technology, giving citizens a choice of access.” Hurray – we’re moving away from the WAI perspective that suggests that all Web resources must be universally accessible to all, to an inclusive approach which endorses a diversity of delivery channels!

2.10 Underlying Principle 9: Openness. This section goes on to add that “openness is the willingness of persons, organisations or other members of a community of interest to share knowledge and to stimulate debate within that community of interest, having as ultimate goal the advancement of knowledge and the use thereof to solve relevant problems. In that sense, openness leads to considerable gains in efficiency.” I’m pleased to see this emphasis on the benefits of openness of content and engagement endorsed in the document.

This section than states that:

Interoperability involves the sharing of information and knowledge between organisations, hence implies a certain degree of openness. There are varying degrees of openness.

Specifications, software and software development methods that promote collaboration and the results of which can freely be accessed, reused and shared are considered open and lie at one end of the spectrum while non-documented, proprietary specifications, proprietary software and the reluctance or resistance to reuse solutions, i.e. the “not invented here” syndrome, lie at the other end.

The spectrum of approaches that lies between these two extremes can be called the openness continuum.

We are seeing an appreciation of complexities and a “spectrum of approaches [to openness]” rather than a binary division which is promoted by hardliners.

2.12 Underlying Principle 11: Technological Neutrality and Adaptability. This principle leads to “Recommendation 7. Public administration should not impose any specific technological solution on citizens, businesses and other administrations wh n establishing European Public Services.” Having acknowledged the needs to be user-centric and to encourage openness, whilst recognised that there may be a spectrum of approaches which need to be taken, the document spells out the implications that specific technical solutions should not be imposed.

Interoperability levelsChapter 4 of the document introduces four Interoperability Levels, as illustrated.

Although not depicted in the diagram for me this indicates the team for the technical discussions and decisions about interoperability need to be formed within the context of political, legal, organisation, and semantic considerations. Surely self-evident when stated like this, but not when we hear mantras such as “interoperability through open standards” being promoted at a policy level which can lead to discussions taking place in which other considerations can become marginalised.

Has the  “EU quietly changed its view on open standards and no longer sees patents and paid licensing as taboos“. Or might we suggest that the “The EU is now taking a pragmatic approach to the relevance of standards in ICT development. It now feels that the technical considerations need to be placed in a wider context“?

Posted in standards | 4 Comments »

The Network Effect Is Missing From The Standards Debate

Posted by Brian Kelly on 15 July 2009

In a recent post I asked “Do We Want A Standards-based Voice/Video Service?“. The post suggested that the failure of the JANET Talk service to gain significant support or interest provided evidence of the failure of a development approach based solely or primarily on support for open standards.

In a response to the post, Nick Skelton provided  his explanation for why JANET Talk didn’t take off – the lack of positive network effects. Nick pointed out that as network grow “its usefulness increases in proportion to the number of potential connections between people in the network – the square of the number of people“. Nick felt that JANET Talk’s failure was inevitable as it “was only for people in UK HE to talk to others in UK HE“.

Although Nick’s point specifically addressed telephone networks I feel his arguments are also applicable to social networks in general – an argument I made at the JISC Digitisation Conference back in July 2007 in a talk on “Globalisation Of Social Networks and Networked Services.

We are now beginning to appreciate the importance of the network effect in a range of application environments – saving bookmarks used to be a function of the user’s browser but now we are seeing advantages of social sharing services such as del.icio.us.

But this seems to be missing from the approaches which have been taken to support IT development activities. In a post about the JISC e-Framework, for example, Andy Powell  questions whether the e_framework is of “any value to anyone“.  In a response Wibert Kraan felt that we can’t “forget about [the e-Framework] and pretend it never happened” – rather there’s a need to “look at what went well and why and what went wrong and why“. And this is equally true when considering the failure of open standards to live up to their expectations.

We need a better model for the adoption of open standards in our development activities since the current approach, which tends to assume that an open standard from a trusted and mature standards body will inevitably be accepted by the marketplace, is clearly flawed. And the network effect would appear to be a significant aspect in solutions which do become widely deployed and used.

Posted in standards | 3 Comments »

Do We Want A Standards-based Voice/Video Service?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 8 July 2009

Last year JANET(UK) launched a trial of a voice, video and collaboration application called JANET Talk. As described in JANET News No.8 June 2009 (PDF format):

The aims of the trial were to understand the precise requirements and service provisioning model for an ‘on net’, standards-based SIP service that could be used for communication between JANET users via a software PC client interface, mounted on the user’s PC or a SIP-based traditional phone handset“.

A survey of potential users also “showed a requirement for a feature rich collaboration tool for exclusive
use by JANET connected users that didn’t use peer-to-peer technology
“.

Sounds good doesn’t it? A standards-based solution should avoid the problems caused by use of proprietary services and access would be available on both a PC and a phone handset which supported the SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) standard. Who, apart possibly Macintosh and Linux users who seem to have been excluded from the trial, would not wish this trial well (which attracted over 100 institutions) and look forward to deployment of the service across the JANET community?

However, as described in JANET News

The results from both trial feedback and market research showed that the appetite for a service like JANET Talk had diminished. The reasons cited include a preference for alternative solutions that are now available from the commercial sector. These solutions were deemed easier to use, reliable and free.

So now we know. Users don’t care about standards. Users care about solutions that work, are easy to use and, ideally, are free!

I know this is true for me, as I was an early adopter of Skype. At one stage use of Skype was frowned upon here at Bath University due to the load it could place on the campus network as well as the concerns about its proprietary nature, and the licensing conditions. However over time the local network team deployed solutions to manage the network load and we now seem to have happy Skype users, such as myself.

The University has also deployed a SIP solution which is available on SIP-compliant phones in various halls of residence. I must admit that when I heard about this offering I was interested. Was there a service based on open SIP standards which would enable me to talk to others without being constrained by a particular client? Sadly it seems that with the Freewire service used at Bath calls are free “when they’re made from one Freewire user to another” although you can “download the Freewire Telephone software for nothing“. But if you want to talk to someone on another service (Skype, for example) you’ll have to pay for the call :-(

So let’s remember, open standards don’t always succeed. And users may reject standards-based solutions in preference to other alternatives. There are risks in investing in open standards. And there should be lessons to be learnt from examples such as this. But I sometimes feel that we will ignore evidence which does not fit in with established dogma.

Posted in standards | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Standards are for Catholics

Posted by Brian Kelly on 1 April 2009

Being brought up in an Irish Catholic environment in the 1960s meant that life was full of religious and moral absolutes. If you were good you’d go to heaven (with some time in purgatory a likelihood) whereas protestants would go to hell. Black babies, who never had the opportunity for redemption, would go to limbo (it was only in 2006 limbo that limbo was abolished). And I can recall the Irish missionary priests who came to school collecting for the black babies – peer group pressure meant that the 12-sided 3d coin from your pocket money was the expected contribution. (The local catholic junior school, incidentally, hadn’t been rebuilt after being bombed in the war which meant we had the upstairs classroom in a protestant school – and we had staggered breaks so we wouldn’t mix. Little did we realise in the annual ‘Wessie Road’ upper vs ‘Wessie Road’ lower grudge football matches that the the over-the-top tackles were reflecting disagreements over the Virgin birth and Papal infallibility).

Now although I have already confessed to losing my religion the Jesuits may well have been right in their views on the power of indoctrination in early years. So although I no longer believe that I must not eat meat on Fridays, I am aware of the meaning and power of the word must and can differentiate it from should.

Such an understanding is very relevant in the works of standards. If a programming language requires statements to be terminated with a “;” then you must do so, otherwise your progam with fail (or, as is often said these days, FAIL). It’s not a fuzzy choice – it works or it doesn’t. Period.

But it seems that the meaning of must is slowly being lost. This first struck me several years ago when UKOLN was involved in the development of the standards and guidelines which support the national NOF-digitise programme. We were told that the document should state that “All Web sites must be available 24×7″ (or words to that effect). Our protestations were ignored – until projects reported that responses to the invitation to tender were rather over budget (to put it mildly).  We then described that 24*7 availability requires duplication of servers, backup networking capacity, backup power supplies, etc. and was only likely to be required by international organisations. It subsequently turn out that the requirement was that servers should not be turned off at 5 pm on Friday evenings, as had been the case in some circumstances in the past. The document was updated with the mandatory requirement being replaced by “Projects should seek to provide maximum availability of their project Web site” – as there was a contractual requirement to implement all of the ‘musts’ in the document this was needed in order to safe the entire NOF-digi budget being used to ensure 24×7 access for a single project!

Now I recently asked the question Is The UK Government Being Too Strict? as it similarly seemed to be requiring a must in circumstances in which the evidence suggests that such strict conformance very seldom occurs.

Is this just me and my background, I wonder?  When I see the word must in a standard, I think it really means must – otherwise you’ll be dammed forever in a non-interoperable hell.

But maybe I should chill out a bit? Maybe when I read must I should think of the kind friendly maths teacher I had at school who told me I should try harder, but he knew that it was sometime difficult, so he wasn’t too concerned if I gort it wrong. After all, I’ll probably find it easier in the future.

So tell me, are there policy makers and authors of standards and specifications who really do feel that must means must, whereas the developers interpret must as should? Is the problem that we have a non-interoperable mix of religions involved?

Posted in standards | 3 Comments »

Are You Able?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 17 February 2009

There were two invited keynote speakers who travelled from Europe to speak at the OzeWAI 2009 conference. As well as my talk (which I described recently ) Dr. Eva M. Méndez (an Associate Professor in the Library and Information Science Department at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid and not the American actor!) gave a talk entitled “I say accessibility when I want to say availability: misunderstandings of the accessibility in the other part of the world (EU and Spain)“.

Eva’s research focuses on metadata and web standards, digital information systems and services, accessibility and Semantic Web. She has also served as an independent expert in the evaluation and review of European projects since 2006, both for the eContentPlus program and the ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) program and her talk was informed by her knowledge of the inner working of such development programmes funded by the EU.

Her talk explored the ways in which well-meaning policies may be agreed with the EU, although such policies may be misinterpreted or misunderstand and fail to be implemented, even by the EU itself.

I don’t have access to Eva’s slides, so I will give my own interpretation of Eva’s talk.

We might expect the EU to support the development of a networked environment across EU countries across a range of areas. These areas might include:

Available: Have resources been digitised? Are they available via the Web?

Reusable: Are the resources available for use by others?  Or they it trapped within a Web environment which makes reuse by others difficult?

Findable: Can the resources be easily found? Have SEO techniques been applied to allow the resource to be indexed by search engines such Google?

Exploitable: Are the resources available for others to reuse through, for example, use of Creative Commons licences?

Usable: Are the resources available in a usable environment?

Accessible: Are the resources accessible to people with disabilities?

Preservable: Can the resources be preserved for use by future generations?

Since the acronym ARFEUAP isn’t particularly memorable (and ARE-U-API would be too contrived) we might describe this as the Able approach to digitisation. But there is 0ne additional concept which I feel also needs to be included:

Feasible: Are the policies which are proposed (or perhaps mandated) feasible (or achievable)? We might ask are they actually possible (can we make all resources universally accessible to all?)  and can they be achieved with available budgets and with the standards and technologies which are currently available?

There is, of course, a question which tends to be forgotten question: is the proposed service of interest to people and will it be used?

The worrying aspect of Eva’s talk was that the EU don’t appear to be asking such questions – or even used the same vocabulary.  We need to have the bigger picture in order to address tensions between these different areas and the question (and power struggles) of how we prioritise achieving best practices – for example, should we be digitizing resources, even if we can’t make them accessible; should we regard access by people with disabilities as being of  importance than ensuring the resources can be preserved?  And let’s not fudge the issue by suggested that each is equally important and all can be achieved by use of open standards. That simply isn’t the case – and if you doubt this, ask managers of institutional repositories. They will probably say that they are addressing the available, reusable, findable, preservable and, perhaps, exploitable issues, but I suspect that the repository managers would probably admit that many of the PDFs in the repositories will not be accessible.

Posted in Accessibility, preservation, standards | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

“Standards Are Like Sausages”

Posted by Brian Kelly on 13 February 2009

Standards are like sausages” suggested Charles McCathieNevile at the OzeWAI 2009 conference. “I like sausages” he went on to say “but I’m not keen on exploring too closely how they’re made“.

This was a wonderful metaphor which appealed to several Twitterers at the conference, including scenariogirl and RuthEllison.

A quick Google suggests the origin of this saying is “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made” by Otto von Bismarck (although this origin is disputed) with the Healthcare Standards blog applying it to standards-making in a post on The Making of Standards and Sausages published in August 2008.

Paul Downey, an advocate of Web Architecture at BT and formerly BT’s Chief Web Services Architect, chair of the W3C XML Schema Patterns for Databinding Working Group and BT representative at various organisations including OASIS and the WS-I, may has some sympathy with this view judging by the title of his talk at the QCon conference  “Standards are Great, but Standardisation is a Really Bad Idea“. The abstract for this talk is worth quoiting in full:

Standards arise from consensus between competitors signaling maturity in a marketplace. A good standard can ensure interoperability and assist portability, allowing the switching of suppliers. A widely adopted standard can create new markets, and impose useful constraints which in turn foster good design and innovation. Standards are great, and as the old joke goes, that’s why we have so many of them!

If standards represent peace, then formal standardisation can be war! Dark, political, expensive and exclusive games played out between large vendors often behind closed doors. There are better ways to forge consensus and build agreements and the notion of a committee taking often a number of years to writing a specification, especially in the absence of implementation experience appears archaic in today’s world of Agile methods, test driven development, open source, Wikis and other Web base collaborations.

This talk will draw upon Paul’s personal experiences forged in the wonderful world of XML and Web service standardisation, examine the risks of premature standardisation, unnatural constraints, partial implementations and open extensions, puzzle how to avoid cloud computing lock-in, and contrast formal activities with lightweight open processes as exemplified by open source, Microformats, OpenID, OAuth and other Web conventions being ratified through open, lightweight, continuous agreement.

Now I’ve heard it suggested that in order to avoid choosing the wrong standard, you simply need to look at the worthiness of the organisation which produced the standard, perhaps on the assumption that a reputable standards-making organisation is like an approve sausage-making company. But as Paul Downey suggests, and Keith Boone seems to confirm in his post on the Healthcare blog,  the unsavoury standardisation processes take place in an organisation responsible for delivering globally-accepted standards such as HTML, CSS and XML.

Selecting the standards that will not only work as specified but will be widely accepted and supported in the marketplace is not an easy task.  And it is good to see that evidence of such concerns is now becoming more widely available.

Posted in standards | 3 Comments »