My thoughts on XTech

I’ve just posted a piece on my thoughts about the first couple of days at last weeks XTech over at the BBC’s Internet blog.

Note Book and pen

As David Recordon of Six Apart noted in Wednesday morning’s plenary, open software and hardware have become hip and have given small groups of developers the chance to build interesting web apps – and, more importantly, the chance to get them adopted. This is a new wave of web companies which expose their data via APIs and consume others’ APIs. And what is interesting about these companies is that they are converging on common standards – in particular, OAuth and OpenID.”


There was a lot on data portability and Semantic Web stuff (including our presentation on the Programme’s Ontology) both of which I’m really pleased to report are getting some practical adoption. And as with the Social Graph Foo Camp XMPP appears to be to an important emergent technology. I just hope it can scale.

Photo: 19th February 2005, by Paul Watson. Used under licence.

There’s no such thing as a document – only HTTP?

The closing keynote at XTech 2008 saw Sean McGrath discussing “Orang utans, Oxen and Ogham Stones“. The centralĀ premissĀ of the presentation is that as the web becomes more dynamic so more and more of the data is only accessible when its requested – and this can mean that its inaccessible to machines and therefore the rest of the web. There are no persistent documents.

Sean argued that we have three models operating on the web.

  • Model A is the platonic model. Documents (already) exist on the server – you simple request them over HTTP.
  • Model B has documents existing on the server but are dynamically rendered transforming the content in the process using, for example, CSS and JavaScript.
  • Model C has nothing existing until you observe it. The document is composed and rendered when requested – Just In Time programmatic generation of content.

Model C is Turing complete, user-sensitive, location-sensitive and device-sensitive and model C is winning at least on the client side with Ajax, Flash, Silverlight and Air. It’s now relatively common when viewing the source of pages and see no actual content, just JavaScript to generate the content.

So does this matter? Sean thinks so yes. He fears that this data is siloed, trapped within the code and not accessible via addressable URIs. And if we lose URIs and hypertext then we also lose deep linking – and what about search engines? Will the Googlebot download that JavaScript and eval it to spider it? And what about everyone else? URLs are great for wombling – they can be bookmarked, tagged and mashed-up.

If Sean is right then rather than the web being made up of documents with some code (as it once was) we will be left with a web of few documents and lots of applications. A Web which is really just HTTP.

But is this all true? I’m not so sure.

Sure there has been a rise in the use of client side scripting to dynamically render content (notably with the rise of Ajax web apps) and there are plenty of server side applications delivering dynamic content – but I don’t think we should be worried about server side apps, as long as they are well designed.

It seems to me that we have three classes of webpage:

  • Resources – individual objects, which if designed well live quite happily at persistent URLs;
  • Aggregations – listings and groupings of those resources;
  • Web apps – pages that let users manipulate resources.

So for example even though the BBC Programmes is rendered dynamically (from a server side application) the resources are found at persistent URLs and the pages contain lots of lovely, semantic, mark-up (there are are also plenty of aggregations). Whereas Flickr uses Picnik a client side photo editing application to let Flickr users edit their photos.

Is this a problem? I don’t think so, no. After all, as Sean noted there’s no such thing as a resource only a representation of one. And this is the best you can ever get – the web is made up of URIs and HTTP. We just need to be careful not to lose sight of the importance of URIs.

Photo: good ol days, by emdot. Used under licence.

Programmes Ontology at XTech 2008

This year’s XTech conference in Dublin, Ireland will see a gathering of software engineers, information designers, and managers that work with web and standards-based technologies looking at the worlds of web development, open source, Web 2.0 and open standards.

Over the last few months our corner of the BBC has been working on a couple of projects that aim to expose BBC metadata for others to use: Programmes and Music. Our work on the new music site isn’t quite ready for public consumption yet, but programmes has been up and running since last autumn. So a few of us thought that we should share what we’ve been up to, why we’ve done what we’ve done and hear what folk think of it all.

Our hope is that by exposing our data in a variety of accessible forms (including ATOM, JSON, XML and RDF) other developers can do interesting stuff with it. If you would like to find out a bit more you can read my previous post about the ontology, the abstract for XTech or better still come and listen to Nick and myself in Dublin on the 8th May.

Photo: Somewhere in Dublin, by pierofix. Used under licence.