Movable Type, Mitch Kapor and the semantic web

I’ve been a little slow on reading for the last couple of weeks, working on code instead. Learned CSS last weekend, and installed Movable Type this weekend. The MT software lets you categorize entries, so people who want to catch up on my life don’t have to slog through essays on complex systems, and vice versa. The code is available, which raises all kinds of intriguing possibilities for nifty hacks, involving email and the Amazon API and comments.
The technology industry is in a depression, and the big boys and girls wonder if the days of innovation are behind us. But there’s plenty of creativity going on in the open source world.
A couple of years ago, open source hackers were working on OS kernel implementations, web servers, and development tools. Reliable, heavy-duty carpenter’s tools; software of, by, and for professional technologists, intent on improving the machine, and more power to them.
These days, there are also communities working on tools for publishing, collaboration, communication. Creative applications using the Amazon API, the Google API, RSS syndication. And I just read on SlashDot that Mitch Kapor and Andy Hertzfeld are working on an open source competitor to Outlook, using bits and pieces of Mozilla, Jabber, and Python. The current wave of open source software development is in tools and applications for people.
Some thoughts about this trend, in several different directions:
1) During the boom, Jerry Michalski, an industry visionary and highly decent human being, used to talk about how the internet would provide tools for people to communicate and collaborate. And he’d talk about the potential for Yahoo and Amazon and AOL to be new platforms. But the economy went south, companies slowed innovation, and focused understandably on paying the bills. The good thing is, there’s no reason to wait for a Yahoo or Amazon or Microsoft to provide the tools. People are coding happily away in kitchens and living rooms.
2) Despite the fact that Mitch Kapor’s project seems to attack Microsoft in an area of towering strength, his business isn’t as crazy as it sounds. IBM is building a big business implementing open source software; there are similar services opportunities downmarket of IBM. IBM would be quite happy to deploy armies of professional service people to deploy an open source messaging system.
The Kapor announcement is vaporware; it may or may not go anywhere. The niche might be filled by some other project, some other year. But open source poses a threat to Microsoft’s dominance of the email market, just as it does in operating systems.
3) Tim Berners-Lee and various other very smart people have described a vision of the “semantic web.” According to Berners-Lee’s view, the Semantic Web would be for machines what the World Wide Web is for people, a uniform way to see and use vast amounts of formerly hidden information. The classic example is a robot secretary that will scour the web and schedule your airfares, hotel rooms, and meetings, using metadata published according to standards, and discovered via automated search and publish/subscribe notification.
Open source hackers and software companies are building a semantic web today, and it’s different from Berners-Lee’s vision. In the robot version of the semantic web, the nodes of the network consist of information, nicely categorized according to standard XML taxonomies. The links consist of protocols and tools to traverse the network, and automated processes to make calculations and execute transactions; to find the shortest travel time at the lowest cost.
In the version of the semantic web exemplified by, Daypop and Google News, the nodes of the network are people. The links of the network are relationships among people; who are reading books, selecting stories to publish, selecting sites to link. Google News, which is marketed as a replacement for human editors, depends thoroughly on humans; editors and bloggers, who select the stories to cover to begin with, and readers around the world, who chose which stories to read. The semantic web doesn’t replace human intelligence, it multiplies it by connecting people.
Despite the Nasdaq, tech innovation surely isn’t done.

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