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why (not)echo is important -- part 2

Last week I posted a comment with my views on why, necho is important. It was done from a more technical point of view, but the arguments ended up in what's really important anyway: the users, because in the end it's about creating useful applications, interoperability, etc.

I was reading Steve Kirk's open letter to the RSS community and I thought I'd elaborate on one the points on that I have mentioned before, (and, as I've also noted earlier Jon Udell made similar comments recently), that I think is getting lost in the discussion, and thus muddling things a little. To see the rest of my argument, please refer to the previous entry I mentioned above.

Before going on: Steve puts forward the idea of creating a standards body for the current formats. I agree that would be the ideal case, but it's plainly clear that at this moment it can't happen. I think everyone, from their side of the fence, would agree with that as well. As I've said in one of the posts I referenced above:

I think there's no doubt that Echo's happening, which is good. Also, there's no doubt that, ideally, it would be better if the process involved less infighting and was more evolutionary.
So, the reality is that we were not going anywhere before. The reasons aren't important at this point, and I don't want to dwell into a discussion that has been going on for long enough, and one in which, plainly, there can be no "winners". What matters is where we are today, and how to go forward from here.

On to what I was really going after, what I consider a point that has been largely ignored in this "compatibility" discussion.

The point is this: creating a new weblog syndication/API format will not be disruptive for users.

Why do I say this?

Consider the state of things today: weblog tools generate feeds in any of several formats (sometimes in more than one). The BBC uses one format. The New York Times uses another. When tools or sites provide information in different formats, they are, in fact, incompatible.

Do users know this? Do they care?

No.

Why?

Because tool providers have evolved to deal with a situation of multiple formats, and support all of them transparently. I know, because I've written software that works that way. All other aggregators do the same.

So the fact is that, today, users are not being directly affected by the multiplicity of formats, because we, the developers, have evolved to support a splintered market in a consistent way.

In the previous paragraph I said "users are not being directly affected" because they are being affected indirectly. How? Mainly, through the extended development time that supporting multiple formats mean for developers, and consequently less time to be able to do new things.

So how does this reality affect the necho/RSS argument?

In my opinion, it gives us a good indication of what will happen when necho is "released". Tools will start to support necho as well as RSS. The formats will coexist, just as RSS 0.91 and RDF and RSS 2.0 coexist today. Furthermore, this coexistence will be transparent, just like today. Over time, necho will, hopefully, become the standard. In the meantime, there will not be a major catastrophe of incompatibility (although we can't rule out minor problems). Eventually, some of the other formats might become less used, and will be phased out (this is something that is already happening, for example, with the transition from RSS 0.91 to RSS 2.0). And because, currently, RSS is being almost exclusively used for updates and regenerated constantly at each endpoint, there will be little if any switchover cost, again, as an example of this I put forward the transition from RSS 0.91 to RSS 2.0 that happened last year. (This is a point on which I disagree with Steve, who makes comparisons to Linux and Windows, which I think is innacurate. The cost of switching binary formats is of a completely different order than the cost of switching RSS, as I've mentioned here, and as clearly shown by the RSS 0.91 to RSS 2.0 switch, which happened late last year).

Obviously, it's on us, the developer community, to add necho support without disruption, and it's not a problem. After all, we are already doing it today, and moving most (hopefully all) tools into necho will eventually reduce work for developers in the future, allowing us to, finally, concentrate on improving the tools rather than on how to let them connect to each other.

Note: As I said in the previous entry: this is an emotional subject for many people, so I'd appreciate it if the comments, if any :), remain on-topic, that is, they talk about the text itself, or the ideas, rather than about the people that stand for/against an idea, both for comments on comments, or comments on the entry. Thanks.

Categories: technology
Posted by diego on July 6, 2003 at 5:47 PM

addicted to data?

From the New York Times: The lure of data. A flood of comments about this came to mind: the consequences of technology, or not, but more importantly feedback loops created by extra tasks put on workers, which then increases waiting times for people that need their results, which then leads to people wanting to do other things while they wait... anyway. Maybe later. Back to work. No. I wasn't multitasking. Seriously. Oops, phone rings...

Categories: technology
Posted by diego on July 6, 2003 at 11:19 AM

the price of technology

Every once in a while news re-surface about the seemingly neverending conflict in Congo. Mostly it's European media (The Economist in particular keeps up on the subject), but in this case it's a Salon article on the war and the lack of engagement of the International community:

[...] The statistics of the war there are staggering: More than 3.3 million lives lost in five years, and more civilian deaths in one week than in the Iraqi war to date, according to a recent report by Watchlist, an international coalition of nongovernmental organizations focused on children in armed conflict. It is the deadliest conflict since World War II, and although a South African peace plan has been discussed, few are optimistic it will work.
And what fuels this war? Why does nobody press for intervention? Well, money, of course. The money made from large deposits of non-renewable resources, such as diamonds, or rare minerals used in high-tech devices. All our wonderful technologies built on the blood of innocents. Cell phones, computers, you name it.

This is not a tirade or anything, by the way, but it's something I've been thinking about for a while in different contexts, and I'll probably come back to this in the near future. But to begin with...

What I've been thinking is that In the tech world we are missing an element of responsibility, we haven't accepted the fact that we are creating tools that both exacerbate problems (enviromental, economic, wars, and so on) and are also used for unsavory ends (While it's an oft-repeated mantra that the US military is the best in the world, what I don't hear often is that this superiority is entirely due to technology, not forces. Even the North Korean army has at least half a million men more than the US Army).

Just as the scientists of the Manhattan project realized what they'd done and then called for controls, we should begin to take a step back and consider the results of our relentless drive for the next cool thing. A while ago Bill Joy made a similar argument in an article in Wired called "Why the Future doesn't need us" (a must read), but he was referring to nanotechnology and its potential future perils. I tend to agree with the counterpoint presented by Jaron Lanier in One Half of a Manifesto. His counterpoint, also worth reading in full, might be expressed (only half quizzically) as: "We can't get our machines to stop crashing, much less are they going to take over the world," or, as he himself puts it in the article, that "cyber-armageddonists have confused ideal computers with real computers, which behave differently."

But while I tend to agree with Lanier I also think that Joy's argument has an important kernel of truth in it (and he might still end up being right about nanotech), which is this: we have yet to take responsibilities for any of the technologies we create. While we demand limits to, say, research on genetics, we have no problems with people that design ever-faster supercomputers. But if you ask me, when you consider the immediate end result , in which advanced technology is immediately (and perhaps inevitably) used for military purposes, or creates an imbalance in society that later leads to suffering, then the super-computer designer should have as many constraints as the geneticist, if not more.

Idealistic? Sure. In fact, I'm also a hamster in the tech-wheel, running madly. I enjoy creating new things, and using cool gadgets. But somehow we need to start considering how to deal with this, to start assigning value to creation, and stop creating just because Moore's law sounds like a dandy way to live, or, pretty soon, we'll realize that the high-tech industry in general and Computer Science in particular has created its own Manhattan project to look back on and be terrified at, and stayed complicitly silent about it.

Categories: science
Posted by diego on July 6, 2003 at 1:51 AM

woody's quote of the day

Doctor: When did the changes being to happen automatically?

Zelig (wearily): Years ago. St. Patrick's Day. Wandered into a bar. Wasn't wearing green. They made remarks. I turned Irish.

from Zelig (1982).

Categories: art.media
Posted by diego on July 6, 2003 at 12:46 AM

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