Microformats: A New Hope

microformats-logo.gifTwo events this past week could help to expand the deployment of microformats. Microformats are a clever way of getting from the Web we know today to a more meaningful “semantic” Web, without breaking what works now. By adding simple extensions to existing tags, you can use HTML to communicate not only the presentation of your Web content, but also much of its meaning.

It’s a simple, yet powerful, concept. But microformats haven’t yet gained wide adoption — primarily, I suspect, because there is little incentive for Web developers to use them (aside from the warm feeling of doing the technically right thing). There are only a handful of applications that take advantage of microformats, so there is little reward for site builders who employ them.

But separate events on the same day by two major technology companies — Adobe Systems and Yahoo — may point the way to the future for microformats.

As I posted earlier this week, Adobe Engage 2008 included an array of interesting demos and thought-provoking conversation around Adobe’s AIR platform and the future of software applications that combine the power of the Web and your computer’s desktop environment.

In one example of what AIR can do, Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch demonstrated dragging and dropping content from one AIR application to another. Lynch showed sharing a document using the AIR version of Adobe’s Share application together with an employee directory used inside Adobe. After using the directory to look up the individual with whom he wanted to share the document, Lynch was able drag the person’s name from the directory application into the “Share with” field inside Adobe Share.

Not only is this a cool functionality that you can’t typically achieve with either a browser-based application or traditional desktop software, it is also — as Lynch noted — potentially a great application for microformats.

Lynch characterized the demonstration as “bridging two different applications with ‘drag and drop’, which is quite challenging to do on the Internet today, but [AIR] is starting to enable.” He then continued:

This is an early frontier of that interactivity. I’m just dragging text between one app and another, but you can exchange any data you want: XML, binary data. The next stage is to look at how we can share richer information across applications. Microformats are certainly part of that thinking.

Elsewhere that same day, Yahoo announced its “open search” platform initiative (see the Yahoo Search Blog) designed to let Web developers gain more control over the presentation returned from search queries. The details of how this will work are still unclear, but it would seem an ideal application for microformats.

As Rafe Needleman reported on CNET’s Webware:

[C]onsidering the “open” moniker Yahoo has put on the project, the company is being extremely cagey with the details of how it will actually work. I talked with Amit Kumar, Yahoo Search director of product management, who said that there is as of yet no open spec published for site managers to write to. Nor would he say if Yahoo will support Microformats for this platform–although the company has been using this open standard in some experiments (Yahoo Local, Yahoo Tech and Yahoo Movies UK).

If applications like AIR and Yahoo open search provide support for microformats, it could provide the necessary incentives to encourage more widespread adoption.

You can view the demo of Kevin Lynch dragging content between two AIR applications in the archive of Robert Scoble’s Qik stream of the event; see http://qik.com/video/26352 between roughly 3:15 and 4:15. It’s also included on the higher-quality video Adobe published at http://www.adobe.com/devnet/videos/engage_2008/.

For more on microformats, see microformats.org and Knowledge@Wharton’s previous interviews with microformats pioneers Tantek Çelik and Rohit Khare:

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