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Cargo cult specification

Tim Bray finds a cluster of of webservices specs and asks:

Is this the future? Is the emperor dressed? - Tim Bray

Tim has found twenty six specs. Elsewhere the apache wiki more comprehensively lists forty eight, but I'm sure there's closer to sixty and that's not including any of the Grid computing ones which baseline with WSDL/SOAP. There are so many, in fact, that I've justified setting up an RSS feed cut from the apache wiki, so the rest of us (pun intended) can keep up. Bob Sutor said recently that this has to be the year we stop talking about SOAP and WSDL. True, but really SOAP and WSDL are the least of our worries. The industry collectively needs to stop generating specifications for specifications sake.

A lot of webservices spec writing and work within standards bodies is being done without much (it seems) real understanding of what the value of specifications and standards bodies are. Richard Feynman has described this mentality perfectly:

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head for headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennashe's the controllerand they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land. 1

I see WS-* as a cargo cult and as such it runs the risk of being a failure. Thankfully some folks get it, and realise we need to ratify and ground things at the very least in running code, even if we don't quite have rough consensus.

[1] I first came across the Feynman quote many moons ago when Steve McConnell described the cargo cult in software engineering.

April 2, 2004 10:10 AM


Jon Hanna
(April 2, 2004 06:07 PM #)

You know I think that sometimes things can be too simple for some people to understand! If something is simpler than what you're used to it can be really hard to grok how it's going to work.

That said, It's a balance thing. We don't want too many specs, but we don't want the specs we have to be under-specified in the name of simplicity either (the "but no simpler" half of Einstein's axiom, a phrase that has been at the front of my mind the last week as I've been pondering some REST matters).

I think certain intellectual cultures tend towards one extreme or the other, and really it's best psychologically not to try to stay balanced by walking the thin line between over-simplified and over-complicated but to have your feet in both camps, and have a time for pure theory and a time for quick hacks.

Vivek Chopra
(April 6, 2004 12:09 AM #)

Yes, there are a *lot* of specifications out there!

While some of them will fall by the wayside (as a lot of good-intentioned technologies do), and others are more of 'technical position papers' and/or posturing (from competing standards for simple things like SOAP attachments to more complex WS composition standards), I do not believe that this is a cargo cult. These standards are out there to solve real world problems- EAI for instance (and EAI *is* a very complex).

I maintain a list of these specifications ( http://www.soaprpc.com/specifications.html ) and an overview of where they fit in ( http://www.soaprpc.com/archives/000002.html ).

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