Monday, July 25, 2005

Help create and implement new "microformats" for the web

The Wharton Business School blog has a fascinating interview up right now with Tantek Celik, senior technologist at Technorati and one of the co-founders of a new website called Microformats.org. (I'm misspelling Mr. Celik's name, by the way, and for that I apologize - damn those international characters!) And what are microformats, you might ask? Well, they're an attempt to add what's called "semantic" information to websites, without having to get rid of the existing structure or coding altogether. And what exactly is semantic information, you might ask? Well, that's an attempt to present certain types of information so that it can be of more use besides just to human eyeballs that are reading it on a computer screen. Think of an existing standard like vCard to get an idea of what I'm talking about; such a standard not only displays a person's contact information on a computer screen, so that you as a human can read it with your eyes, but also as a downloadable data packet, so that anyone using address-book software with vCard capabilities (like Microsoft's Outlook and Hotmail, for example) can simply click on the link and have that contact info automatically added to their particular address book, without having to type it in themselves. There are all kinds of semantic information like this, according to Celik, that could be of immense help to the average user - events that could be added to your calendar with one click, book information embedded within a review that could be added to your bookstore shopping cart, etc.

Granted, this is not exactly a new idea, not to mention that Tim Berners-Lee (the guy who invented the World Wide Web in the first place) has been hard at work for years on inventing "the Semantic Web," a brand-new technology that would do exactly what we're talking about. What's different about microformats, though, is that the emphasis is on using the technology that already exists (like supplementary tags in XHTML, for example) to present this information, both so that such formats can be immediately adopted by the entire planet, and so that amateur programmers like you and me can use such formats without too much of a learning curve. Anyway, the new website hopes to create a community of such microformat enthusiasts, both commercial developers and simple bloggers, in an attempt to develop new microformats without the formalized committee-and-report system you see at places like the W3C. (For example, already on board are the programmers at Upcoming.org, one of the more popular calendar services out there for hipsters and artists.) It's one of the more intriguing new web projects I've heard of in a long time, and definitely worth looking into more. (Thanks to the TP Wire Service for pointing this out.)