The State of the World Wide Web, in my opinion

This is a two-part article. Please bear with me.

“Why do you keep trying?”

A few weeks ago, I started asking myself this question about Verbosio. If you factor in the time I spent on Abacus (and I do), I have been at this off-and-on project for about four years now, with nothing of real value to show for that time. This is a depressing state of affairs.

I can only answer that question with, “Because there’s no tools I know of to do the job better.” Specifically, to give me UI’s for editing XML documents with language-specific tools (XUL, XBL, RDF, MathML, XHTML, SVG, etc., etc.). It was true four years ago, and it’s still true now.

Think about it: how cool would it be to have an application that came, out of the box, with the following options under its File menu:

  • New Document…
    • XHTML
    • XUL Window
    • XUL Dialog
    • XUL Overlay
    • XBL 1
  • New Document Pack…
    • XULRunner Application

You fill out a simple form, and there it is. Plus, you have language-specific buttons for editing the document in a given language (XUL), and it’s easy to switch to another language (CSS, even though it’s not XML).

Or, if you want to add MathML, you drop in a MathML extension, and restart… and MathML is now enabled for editing.

Right now, I still don’t know of any tools that can really do this. I’ve always intended Verbosio as a platform for doing this. After four years, though, I begin to lose faith, encouraged only by the fact that I perceive a real need for it.

The WWW is not living up to its (literary) potential

Many people blame Internet Explorer for this. Yes, it still has a monopoly stranglehold on browsing the Internet, and yes, IE7 is bringing some improvements, but not enough. But those who blame IE and Microsoft alone are only looking at a small piece of the problem.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee believes we need a Semantic Web, and I’m not entirely sure I disagree with him on that. But even so, this doesn’t address other problems with the Web we have now, including the focus of this article.

The World Wide Web Consortium has put out dozens of Recommendations, many of them talking about XML languages such as those mentioned above. XML is a Big Thing, and not going anywhere. What we can do with XML, and specifically certain XML languages, is truly astonishing.

Creating XML documents with those languages in the first place, though…

Fundamentally, that’s what Verbosio is about. Sure, tools for generating HTML are everywhere, and it’s relatively easy to convert HTML to XHTML most of the time. But what about MathML, or SVG at the same time? RDF? How can you create the content flexibly through a GUI?

(Note: Please spare me the snide remarks suggesting a text editor. Text editors are just about the most inefficient way to create XML markup that there is.)

The simple fact is, tools to create such rich XML markup are not widely known and available. I truly and honestly believe this holds the WWW in the year 2000 more than Microsoft and Internet Explorer do.

While browsing the WWW has improved dramatically (Firefox, Opera, Safari, Camino, etc.), and e-mail has had similar improvements (Thunderbird, and forgive me for forgetting the other major e-mail clients out there with frequent releases), that simply means the ability to read the WWW has improved. No corresponding improvements to writing the WWW have been nearly as widespread.

The old Composer application, as it belonged to Netscape (when Netscape was a real company a decade ago), and later Mozilla, was a critical success at providing HTML editing capability. I dream of a similarly successful rich XML editor at my fingertips. ETNA may be that solution. Verbosio may be that solution. Or it may be something else. Amaya isn’t quite that solution, but it’s good for its purposes. A tool allowing me to edit XHTML, MathML, SVG, RDF, etc. simultaneously through a GUI that makes me think I’m editing XHTML, MathML, SVG, RDF, etc. instead of making me think I’m editing vanilla XML, is a tool desperately needed.

I’ve said before I work for ManyOne Networks, and two of our sponsored projects are the Digital Universe and the Encyclopedia of Earth. When you get down to it, though, these sites are about hosting and linking to accurate content. The better tools there are to edit said content, the better the experiences of our customers will be. In this respect, it’s fortunate for me to work at ManyOne Networks. They want to offer content and content services, and I want to offer content editing services.

The World Wide Web is a fantastic creation; without it, you’d likely not be reading these words. But even now, the blogging software I’m using to write this article can’t let me easily create artwork. We can see the artwork just fine. But no one can appreciate that which has not been drawn.

Until that day comes, I fear even blog articles will be restricted mainly to the realm of hypertext and digital camera pictures. We can read so much more than we can write that we don’t even know what we can read or write. It really is time to put pen to paper, instead of just reading everyone else’s papers which are no more capable than our own.

8 thoughts on “The State of the World Wide Web, in my opinion”

  1. Hey now – lets not be making fun of gVIM! 🙂
    In all honesty though, IDE’s are the way to go with developing things, and Verbosio sounds immensely promising. Are you close to an alpha release that could possibly spark interest in the project and then maybe get more devs?
    (From Alex: Funny, every time I think I’m only a couple weeks from an initial release, something else crops up…)

  2. Alex, just make something public and call it pre-alpha or whatever. Get a bug tracker going and a small web forum or newsgroup.
    Sparking some more public interest in what you’re doing would be a healthy thing for both yourself and the project. It might even encourage people to give you a hand.

  3. To mix metaphors, the groundswell of interest in XML never turned into a sweet spot for XML editors. HTML ran out of steam some time ago. But people doing elaborate systems generate richer XHTML using content management software. Meanwhile plain HTML editing is going away, replaced by the awful phpBB tags or limited Wiki syntax.
    I’ve never found an XML editor to love. Altova XMLSpy does a lot but when doing simple XML editing I always wound up scrolled 15 inches sideways typing in a small box. Their Stylevision/Authentic approach is probably a good solution but I never took the time to learn it, just like I never grokked Dreamweaver’s XML-aware mode. “Open source XML editors examined” on NewsForge is an interesting summary. Maybe Quanta Plus has some good ideas.
    I want an XML editor that lets me say “Do these parts of the schema as form fields, do these other parts in a WYSIWYG text editor, and do these other parts as a nesting tag editor” without me doing any work.
    Cheers and good luck,
    Count Zero > Burning Chrome

  4. I don’t know if you can say that IE isn’t the main thing holding back the web, since IE doesn’t support XML properly. If it did, perhaps this argument would be more fair 🙂

  5. While i agree with you on the lack of decent XML markup tools, i disagree on the effect this has on the web.
    To me the web is more about content, not the way we deliver, create or mix the content. RSS, mash-ups, SOAP services, etc all this is nice from a technology perspective – but as soon as the inital “wow” effect is over, i go back to the tools/websites/services offering real content and real value – even if in an ugly, user-unfriendly way (ebay, msdn, craigslist, etc)
    There are way too many blogs and myspace pages out there offering nothing of substance, giving those people better tools wouldn’t make the content better.
    Maybe better tools would help us developers to built better and more flexible infrastructures and software for content authors – but i think we shouldn’t over estimate our and the technologies role.

  6. Is Verbosio a text editor? If so, I hate to say it but Visual Studio 2005 has pretty good support for editing a limited number of XML formats by hand. I’d prefer to use an open source tool though. I hear VIM 7 has nice code completetion, but I’ve never used it to edit XML.
    If its not a text editor, than I can understand why 4 years later you don’t have an alpha version! 1 program that provided GUI editors for all of those file types would be immense!
    (From Alex: Verbosio won’t be a text editor. It will support text editing of XML as a last resort.)

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