Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Screw Web 3.0: Whatever Happened to Web 0.0?

I recently read an article posted on ARS Technica and mentioned on Slashdot about replacing MS Word with a wiki for internal business intellegence. Rather than a cogent discussion of how this could be accomplished, I found lots of naysaying and complaining about how that was old news. However, just because some problem is old news is no reason to ignore it. So I posted the following reply on Slashdot.

I agree that Word and other word processors are not as useful as they used to be in an age where many documents are not necessarily printed out. However, that does not mean that nothing will ever be printed again. I also agree that a Wiki is a great way to store business intelligence however, MediaWiki does not have a very easy to use editor. Other wiki servers offer much better editors. I also agree with many posters in Slashdot and ARS that without the ability to easily embed things like spreadsheets into wiki pages then we will still need word processors to generate the documents the way we really want them to look and then post those as .PDF files.

But why is everyone just sitting around whining about how his idea won't work instead of getting together and figuring out a way to make it work.
HTML and CSS provide a great way to display a document with almost all of the features people usually want. The problem is that editing the documents - and the styles used within them - is still more difficult than it should be for regular people. Word allows a user to easily create, name, and update styles. CSS not so much. Users have to learn arcane concepts such as CSS Selectors, inheritance, etc. Why can't someone write a "document editor" that simply saves it's files as HTML with CSS styles? Not a web-site-design-tool for professional web developers, but just a document editor that works kind of like a word processor for regular people. These could be available as stand alone programs or as plug-ins for browsers.

Has anyone ever seen a web page with an active embedded spreadsheet? They may exist but I haven't seen one. Why not? Because they aren't readily and easily available. Why hasn't someone taken some existing standard for spreadsheet data like ODF (or even - heaven forbid - Open Office XML) and created a standardized way to embed that into a web page. Then others could create standalone or browser-plug-in-based spreadsheet editors to work with that standardized spreadsheet data format. Users should be able to open and edit that embedded spreadsheet just as easily as they can edit a table in some wiki sites. In fact it should be even easier.
And wiki software designers really need to get off their duffs as well. I am an experienced network manager. I have been working with computers since 1976 and posting online in various forms since the 300 baud bulletin board days. But I don't ever post anything on WikiPedia. Why? Because I don't want to have to learn yet another stupid formatting system (that is about three levels of jury rigging deep) instead of some formatting system I already know and is an industry wide standard. Users really need editors that will edit a wiki page just as if it were a word processing document, or at least a regular web page. The user should be able to embed whatever they want into the page and the software should handle the difficult formatting. There should be templates that can be easily called up (rather than downloaded and copied and pasted and modified to fit in this wiki and hacked and rehacked until they work) so that users will get the look the want (or a corporate standard look) without much effort at all. I am sure some higher end wiki servers have some of these features but they must be locked up in proprietary systems or protected by some kind of patents because I haven't seen them in use out in the real world. How hard can it be for the community to settle on some standards for these things so that developers can get started working on various FOSS and commercial applications to make use of the standards. I mean really! People have been bitching about this for years now.

And before anyone jumps in and asks me why I am not fixing all this myself... It is because I am already working on saving the world in my own way. See and But someone, somewhere must have some spare time to solve some of the major issues that have been simply ignored in the quest for more and more social-networky "solutions." Surely someone in the wiki development community or someone at Google should be able to come up with a FOSS JavaScript app that can allow users to embed a spreadsheet into a web page or wiki just as easily as they can a YouTube video.

Once they've finished that, they can start working on a way to embed rich outlines (not just ordered and unordered lists) that can be easily rearranged and collapsed without custom javascript. Or .PDF files with thumbnails for links (without the user needing to create a .GIF manually). There are dozens of things that have been just sitting undone while everyone runs around trying to predict what Web 3.0 will look like.

Web 3.0 will simply be when regular people can edit wikis and online documents using all the features they are used to using on their desktop personal computers and can embed all the stuff that is available to be embedded in a standardized way. This will enable any user with any version of a spreadsheet editing plug-in to simply edit that spreadsheet. When the users don't have to learn a different editor for every frikkin web site the go to and can use whatever editor they frikkin want then we will have people who are truly ready and willing to contribute something to the world community more important than merely what they had for lunch.
But then, when you think about it, it won't be Web 3.0 at all. It will finally be realizing Tim Berners-Lee's original vision for the World Wide Web. A web of documents that anyone can easily edit and connect together. So, forget about Web 3.0. Long live Web 0.0. The origin of the Web.

Anyway, enough of my rant. As you might have guessed, I have been stewing on this issue for a while and the responses to this article here and on ARS Technica just touched a nerve.

The contents of this post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

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