Wednesday, November 22, 2006

What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor?

An issue is emerging in several blogs and technical lists on the topic of expectations for backward compatibility of document formats on the web. At XML.COM, David Peterson rebuts a Popular Science article about a digital ice age when future archaeologists cannot decipher our current times because of our choices to publish documents in digital formats on digital media.

The long lifecycle argument has been occurring for at least three decades in computer systems circles and was one of the reasons for the success of markup systems. It only has so much mileage because static data is not enough to ensure behavioral fidelity on recovery unless behavioral semantics are stored as well. In the long lifecycle, we know that knowledge does get lost and the medium may not make a difference. Some of it can be recovered if smart people put their minds to it. The recovery of Egyptian hieroglyphics is an example. On the other hand, the library of Alexandria is gone forever.

Shorter lifecycles are immediate problems. The seas for successful products are both smoothed AND made rough by the intersection of competition for improvements and standards for interoperable information. Expectations for backward and upward compatibility vary by product and worse, are violent in the expectations for products that are distinct but familial. Success can be the worst thing that happens to a young band and the worst thing that can happen to a young application. As it was for Egyptian scholars, the history of media and medium can be cruel indeed. It pays to keep a sober head.

A thread is going on the X3D/VRML lists regards VRML 1.0. It was a successful format but not a very capable one. It was 'the simplest thing that could possibly work' and because it was a static model without behaviors, the vendors and the community moved on to VRML97. Then the bubble burst, history has been rewriten since (SecondLife Invents the Metaverse! yeah, whatever...) for the purpose of marketing new applications.

So history, format and application do force some formats out of mainstream use but in the case of the web, NOT OFF THE SERVERS. The dilemma in VRML/X3D is that even with the new X3D format as the third generation of the language, there are a significant number of VRML 1.0 files on the servers. There are no usage statistics but they are still there. The question is, should an author/owner of these files expect the new players to support them?

In the database community, data conversion costs are accepted as a fact of business when a new system replaces an old one. It is priced into the contract. On the other hand, HTML, VRML, SVG, etc are documents. We expect those to keep working in a backwards compatible mode of operation particularly if they were wildly successful in their initial fielding. As a result, HTML design hyteresis is legendary in its impact on the evolution of the language. Design camps have bifurcated into different languages with familial relationships and the (X)HTML browsers have to support them all XML's draconian parse not withstanding. The result: an HTML browser is the exemplar of bloat and script drudgery.

There are no conclusions because the decisions vary by situation. Some observations:

1) Initial fielding of the 'simplest thing that can possibly work' coupled with 'wild success' has consequences. Like an early young marriage, you may outgrow it and face an expensive divorce or an uncomfortable life later.

2) Expectations of databases and document systems are different, but the Internet and WWW system create a hot zone where these requirements overlap. Language by language, we are facing different decisions made by different vendors at different times that will make interoperation in mashups and aggregate documents problematic at best and highly failure prone at worst. What is thinkable and unthinkable varies by situation. Forget the Overton; look at the budgets.

The outcomes for languages and requirements for vendors are left to the reader to work out. Let me put it this way: Microsoft has no reason to fear that it won't have a secure future.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Overton Flush

Mark Pilgrim and Tim Bray have latched onto yet another concept that they say comes from the ThinkTanks (the same guys who put games into the same market as weapons). The concept is that of the so-called, Overton Window, where diametrically opposing concepts are graphed by the linkage between intervening positions that would make the unthinkable thinkable. They claim such planning goes on in these Tanks to get the nitwits of the world to rally around causes as diverse as letting fly with nukes on Tehran to letting fly with farts in the general direction of the W3C and it's standards.

Of course, what is unthinkable is a position itself outside the dichotomy. And if you want to get really dimensional, what is thinkable today might be unthinkable tomorrow. And if you want to lose your pea-picking brain altogether, what is unthinkable for my kids might be thinkable for your kids, and so it goes across the whole manifold mystery of real time events and causes.

Having seen some Tank thinking, it usually isn't that simple an analysis. Dumb as we can be this side of the Northern Border, we did manage to pick up how to do multivariate analyis of real time events. It's a heckuva complicated graph but heck, we have computers and real time 3D to help us sort out the players. If that fails, we flip a coin and attack or take time out for Miller and Budweiser.

Behind the Overton Flush is yet another set of analysts trying to tell us they have it all figured out in advance. In the case of Pilgrim, "W3C Good! All Others BAD!" and usually in dear Tim Bray's case, "Microsoft and the US BAD! Sun and Canada GOOD!" It gets a bit noisier if you go back a few years and both wanted consulting work, or were supporting yet another war that the Americans would go on to fight stupidly, but the Canadians would stay safely at home.

I read these guys for technical advice and that is always excellent. Politics and world events analysis, no, we have our own to Tank for that.

As to the W3C: they won't go away because they are as they've been from the beginning, useful to them that funds'em. They fund their competitors too. That way if one group gets uppity, they can use the other groups to put 'em back in their place. The politics of economics are never as simple as the politics of technologists. That is why geeks get to play with the world but they never ever ever run it; just the conferences.

Who sez? Just another kook, but one that knew Iraq was bad juju and that we were likely to have a Democratic Congress right about now. The big bad question haunting the right today is whether or not in two years time the two most powerful positions in the public hierarchy will be held by two women. I'd say, 60/40. Not likely but way more likely than it's been in some time. Two boobs are better than one.

And they might decide to give control of the Internet to the UN. They are bored with it so its time as the big topic of conversation is about over. The new topic is clean water.

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