Killed By Complexity
Posted by Brian Kelly on 16 September 2008
“If this is the death of Wall Street as we know it, the tombstone will read: killed by complexity” it was suggested on the front page of the Guardian today (Tuesday 16 September 2008). A similar question might be asked about the roadmap for a number of Web developments. Is Tim Berners-Lee’s vision for the Semantic Web over-complex? Are the metadata standards which are being developed too complex to be used by many software developers? The abstract for a panel session at WWW 2005 suggested that “It has been estimated that all of the Web Services specifications and proposals (“WS-*”) weigh in at several thousand pages by now”. And one of the many objections to ISO’s decision to standardise the OOXML file format was that, at 6,000 pages, it was too complex for developers in small organisations to implement.
So now’s the time for more lightweight approaches, it could be argued.
Not so, comes the counter-argument. We will need to have comprehensive, well-grounded and unambiguous standards and specifications in order to build robust services.
The current uncertainties in the financial markets of course provide more than just a analogy – they are also giving rise to uncertainties in the IT sector. This is often used as an argument to point out dangers of the dependencies on externally-hosted Web 2.0 services, as my colleague Paul Walk pointed out recently. But as I mentioned last year in a post entitled “Universities, Not Facebook, May Be Facing Collapse“, universities themselves are not immune to the financial difficulties which the banks and airline sectors are currently facing.
But into such discussions we should also add the financial stability of the standards-making organisations. Organisations which have government backing may be able to weather the storm, but what about those member consortiums whose sustainability is dependent on the financial backing of the commercial sector. And as the W3C is one such organisation, can we be confident that the development and maintenance of complex standards will be sustainable in the long run. In light of suggestion in a recent interview with Ian Hickson, editor of the HTML 5 standard, that the standard is unlikely to be a “Proposed Recommendation in 2022″, should we not now be asking the difficult questions regarding the sustainability of such standards which seem to have a long gestation period before they can be regarded as stable.
Or am I being unduly pessimistic? Might not any current financial uncertainties be a mere blip, and perhaps will not affect standardisation development processes along the lines I’ve hinted at? Or will a legacy of George W Bush’s economic mis-management (or Tony Blair’s if you are of a different political hue) be the failure of the HTML 5 standard to achieve its proposed recommendation status by 2022?