The Web's Grand Planners
August 1, 2001
W3C's New Architectural Watchdog
The World Wide Web Consortium recently announced its Technical Architecture Group (TAG), intended to advise and guide the architectural development of the Web. This group essentially takes on many of the responsibilities of steering the Web's direction currently shouldered by the W3C's Director, Tim Berners-Lee.
Last year it became apparent that Berners-Lee could not continue as the sole arbiter of Web architecture. In the notorious XML-URI discussion, he purposefully stepped out of the Director role in order to be a full participant in the debate, leaving an unfortunate void with nobody able to take a final decision.
The new group is intended to overcome such difficulties and bring increased technical harmony to the ever-diverging range of activities within the W3C. Its stated aims are
- to document and build consensus around principles of Web architecture and to interpret and clarify these principles when necessary;
- to resolve issues involving general Web architecture brought to the TAG;
- to help coordinate cross-technology architecture developments inside and outside W3C.
The mission statement says that the "TAG will not just document what is widely accepted; it will also anticipate growth and fundamental interoperability problems. Elaborating the intended direction of the Web architecture will help resolve issues when setting future directions, help establish criteria for starting new work at W3C, and help W3C coordinate its work with that of other organizations."
The TAG will achieve the bulk of its work by developing Architectural Recommendations. Following a similar path to the W3C's other Recommendations, they will be subject to multiple drafts available for public review. For the first time there will be membership-approved statements of architectural intent, as opposed to draft notes by members of the W3C team.
Although not a replacement for the Director, the TAG will have a very strong influence on the technical development of the Web within the W3C. The majority of the eight-member (plus the Director) group will be made up from the W3C membership. This creates a situation of potential conflict between the members and the Director. It's no secret that Berners-Lee's ambitions for the Semantic Web are not always met with sympathy by the W3C membership -- something indicated by the contrast between the Web Services centered push forward by W3C Members and the Semantic Web push from the W3C Team and academics.
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Will the TAG help or hinder Berners-Lee's ambitions for the Web? In answer to that question, note that the composition of the TAG includes three members to be appointed by the Director, plus the Director himself. The other five members are elected by the W3C's membership. So while there's no appointed majority, there is ample room for Berners-Lee to ensure that some of his key ideas are preserved.
Though obviously significant in the context of W3C politics, it seems unlikely that the TAG will have any radical effect on the way XML is developing. The most ferocious of the TAG's powers is the ability to turn away a submitted Note for dissenting from W3C orthodoxy. The development of XML, its progressive augmentation with steadily more complex specifications, seems an unstoppable force, and ever more so.
It is difficult to imagine that the Web itself could have been created under the conditions of today's W3C: we might have seen progressive tweaks to existing protocols and formats, but no radical leap. The technologies that are changing the Internet at the moment come from way outside the W3C. Peer-to-peer file sharing arose from grassroots activity. The Web Services movement has been driven almost entirely by a few corporations, notably Microsoft, and only touches the W3C to the extent it requires to gain legitimacy.
The ability to confer legitimacy is the main reason for companies to honor the W3C's stewardship of XML and of the Web itself. It provides stability for the commercial XML agenda. TAG appears to have little bearing on the steady production of the latest additions to the XML family, apart from the fine print. It is unlikely that the TAG could make the current selection of existing XML technologies fit a coherent architectural plan.
The intriguing twist to this story, with the potential to alter the Web technology landscape radically, is provided by Berners-Lee himself. TAG forms one part of his confessed strategy to do "more hacking," and it gives him the opportunity to play advocate more often than judge. His dedication to the Semantic Web vision is very strong -- seemingly to the point of exceeding his desire to be W3C Director. If he succeeds in bringing about a second Web revolution, maybe it won't be from the position he occupies now.
It was with great sadness that I learned earlier this week of the death of Frank Willison, editor in chief of O'Reilly and Associates. Frank's judgement, honesty, and wit have underpinned the success and character of O'Reilly's books, and he will be sorely missed. I only had the pleasure of meeting Frank once, earlier this year at an XML conference in London. After that conference, Frank wrote a report for O'Reilly's site. Typically entertaining and thoughtful, the report plots a progression from Henry Thompson to Hegel. Here are the report's closing paragraphs.
Partway through Elliotte Rusty Harold's talk about namespaces, I realized where this relentless drive toward abstraction was taking us. Every new level of abstraction draws the computer-based world closer to the concepts we talk about in the real world. We've moved from waves to bits to data to information to infosets to application objects. As this process continues, some ambitious Comp Sci graduate student will realize that somebody already created the tree structure mapping the highest level of reality. That person was, of course, G. W. F. Hegel. Hegel's dialectic led him to create a map of reality that, at the top of the tree structure, divided everything into either the material or the spiritual realm. That dichotomy was resolved in God, and, my friends, that's about as far as you can go.
That ambitious Comp Sci grad student, eager to get his Ph.D. and begin making real money, will create The Two Final Infosets: MatterML and SpiritML. Then, late one night, as rain falls in torrents and lightning flashes outside his laboratory windows, he'll run XSLT to transform the material world to the spiritual world. We'll be gone. The last material object on earth will be that graduate student's open copy of XML in a Nutshell. It makes an editor in chief proud, in a perverse kind of way.
- Last week Michael Tiemann of Red Hat joined the swelling ranks of those who misattribute the invention of XML. Speaking at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, in a keynote head-to-head session with Microsoft's Craig Mundie, Tiemann aimed various barbs at Microsoft, the impact of which he then attempted to ameliorate by thanking the software giant for inventing XML. Curiously, Mundie subsequently did nothing to disabuse Tiemann of the notion.
- XML bad boy Tom Bradford grows increasingly gloomy, predicting XML's demotion to a "legacy format" by 2010. In his latest rant, Bradford contends that the increasing complexity of the W3C's XML specifications will deaden and eventually kill XML adoption, paving the way for a new "simple solution."
- In the unlikely event that the downfall of XML is nearer than we think, at least XML will have been good news for analysts and the white-paper writing industry. Every new initiative, launched with a volume of PR email rivaling contemporary computer viruses for bandwidth consumption, spawns a community of "experts" ready to usher us into the revolution of the week's newest paradigm. The advantage of being an analyst, of course, is that you can make money from a technology both on the way up and the way down. So, while I'm secretly smiling at the prospect of deflating the over-hyped UDDI, it foreshadows a future where XML advocates can't always count on the breathless approbation of the mainstream technology press.
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