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As We May Hack

I can walk into any meeting anywhere in the world with a piece of paper in hand, and I can be sure that people will be able to read it, mark it up, pass it around, and file it away. I can't say the same for electronic documents. I can't annotate a Web page or use the same filing system for both my email and my Word documents, at least not in a way that is guaranteed to be interoperable with applications on my own machine and on others. Why not? - A Manifesto for Collaborative Tools

Yawp after me - "RDF! RDF!". But seriously, the answer to "why not?" is not this:

The problem with usability is not a lack of good ideas; it's that most of these ideas never make it into real applications. There are many reasons for this, from organizational shortsightedness to the vagaries of the marketplace. As frustrating and as uncontrollable as these factors may be, the onus for changing the situation is on both the researchers who develop these ideas and the programmers who implement them.

The answer, if there is a single answer, is to be found in the marketplace, with the software vendors, the customers, and their fears and desires. The essential problem is that vendors do not want to offer collaboration at the risk of undercutting their wares through interoperation. Collaboration neccessitates the free flow of data across applications - whereas most vendors would rather produce suites and kitchen-sink uber-apps to encapsulate as many uses of data as possible. Chris Ferris has summed this up perfectly:

Interoperability is an unnatural act for a vendor. If they (the customer) want/need interoperability, they need to demand it. They simply cannot assume that the vendors will deliver interoperable solutions out of some altruistic motivation. The vendors are primarily motivated by profit, not good will.

There's a class of articles that tend to look to assign blame to programmers for what's wrong with software. They appear in Computing or CACM from time to time (and are one of the facets of irrelevance that gave cause to not renewing my ACM membership). I find them ferociously, willfully, ignorant on how software actually is conceived, designed, marketed, built and sold. Blaming programmers is intellectually slothful. We are, and let's be clear about this, decades past the time the blame could be laid squarely at the programmers feet.

A Manifesto for Collaborative Tools veered close to that, while never quite getting there - exhorting developers, with only token gesture as to how decisions about software are made. Software is a complete commercial ecosystem that extends far beyond hacking code. Ironically like its observation of the semantic web, this manifesto is unlikely to take hold because it does not address the real issue, which is the marketplace and not technique. This failure in analysis is all the more frustrating as I agree with the essential sentiment expressed (we need better tools, now). Plus the writing is wonderful.


April 13, 2004 09:24 PM

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Tracked on April 14, 2004 09:59 AM