Saturday 6 January 2007

The Hidden Web: Microformats and the The Next Internet

I hadn't taken a lot of interest in the detail of microformats until reading this post on the InformationWeek blog that points to a post by Mozilla's Alex Faaborg that explains what they are and how they might turn Web browsers into information brokers:

"Much in the same way that operating systems currently associate particular file types with specific applications, future Web browsers are likely going to associate semantically marked up data you encounter on the Web with specific applications, either on your system or online. This means the contact information you see on a Web site will be associated with your favorite contacts application, events will be associated with your favorite calendar application, locations will be associated with your favorite mapping application, phone numbers will be associated with your favorite VOIP application, etc."

But this makes me wonder, if a Web browser becomes an information broker doesn't that almost make it at most an operating system (OS) or just plain redundant as we know it? This reminds of an article I started to draft back in 2003, but never published... until now... 

The Next Internet – The Hidden Web
James Dellow, August 2003 (Draft 4)

Web services and XML have the potential to turn our idea of the Internet upside down. If you have heard of Web services, XML and associated technologies like RSS then I know you probably think you knew this already. But forget Internet 2, the Hidden Web is quite literally where the action will be.

So, what does this mean for the average user?

Well let’s say you need to buy something. In the future you will boot up your shopping application of choice; maybe its open source or even provided by a retailer. Either way you won’t type in a URL. The Web appliance will bring the shop to you – or rather Web services will work the Web for you, the Hidden Web. And while it might be based on Microsoft or Linux, someone you trust will brand this Web appliance and help make the choices for you.

Or maybe you need to communicate. You’ll use your PDA-phone or the communication Web appliance on your wireless laptop. It’s your choice but Web services will bring news, e-mail and instant messaging to where you are, on whatever device you are using. Here Microsoft, Netscape or even AOL might be your brand of choice – then again it could just as easily be Nokia or Nike.

Why is this vision of the future so different? Let me explain - when you type in an URL you point your browser to a Web site. You go to that site to interact with it in some way. Maybe you download some information, ask a question or order a product. But browsing is a problem. Faced with millions of Web site around world how do you know which to use? How do keep up with the changes and new information? Who do you trust?

Ross Dawson (2003) presents a compelling idea of the “living network” – the Internet as a global brain where users collectively filter information for each other. One of the drivers is technology like XML because it makes organisations more transparent and service delivery virtual. But he still concedes the need to check a variety of sources to avoid global “group-think”. The expectation here is that every productive human, or human that wants to become productive, will need to be highly information literate and have the time to participate in the living network. Unfortunately somewhere along line some one actually has to do the work.

Perhaps what we have overlooked is the how Web services and XML change the way we will actually make use of the Internet. Some people, like Chad Dickerson in Infoworld, have begun to recognise this. While singing the praises of RSS, an XML based approach that allows content from many different sources to be aggregated by users with an RSS newsreader, he complains that “explaining to the uninitiated why RSS newsreaders are so compelling can be frustrating… that reminds me of how it felt to describe the Web to people who hadn’t yet experienced it.” (Dickerson, 2003).

If you’re thinking push technology isn’t new then consider that the original versions were proprietary and based on old industrial order business models where the service was the business. But in the Hidden Web, the “service” is the Internet. Another way of thinking about this is to consider utilities – are you buying electricity or the electricity service? Sure the electricity usage you pay for funds the network, but you don’t pay directly for access. Now its possible we could flip the model but people don’t like to pay for what they can’t see. And Web services work best when they are invisible.

What people want are services, content and products. Here I agree with Dawson and other commentators, the Information Revolution has created a fundamental change in the way we do business. Virtual enterprises have appeared, fueled by interoperability that was first provided by humble HTML (hey you can see what I know!) and now XML (hey, do something with this!). But what about the individual users on the Web who are still stuck in the original Web paradigm where they go to the data? The new paradigm will be that the data comes to the user. RSS is just the beginning of this change. Other technical experts such as Tim Bray, a co-inventor of XML, back up this view. He was recently quoted as saying “a Web browser itself is not a good way to track a dynamic resource…[RSS has] the potential to impact how everyone interacts with the Web” (Moore, 2003).

Web services and XML based technologies will create a fundamentally different user experience that will make people more productive without being more information literate. Of course the missing piece is who will tell you what information you need to access. Nothing will change in that respect and a few highly information literate and branded knowledge workers will continue to play a role in helping us to select what data we need. But what will change is how we access information. The future evolution of the Hidden Web we have glimpsed in RSS shows an end to the prominence that Web browsers have so far enjoyed.

So stop giving me your URL – because what am I going to do with that?


Dawson, R., 2003, Presentation at the New South Wales Knowledge Management Forum, hosted at Standards Australia, Sydney, 7 August 2003.

Dickerson, C., 2003, ‘RSS Killed the Infoglu Star’, Infoworld, p.32, 7 July 2003.

Moore, C., 2003, ‘Debate Sounds Over Weblog Standards’, Infoworld, p.18, 21 July 2003.

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