I am having a week off work this week and using it to catch up on various open source items I have piled up. I even made a list of things I wanted to do. Naturally, by Monday that list was blown out of the water. I managed to accidently kick over a hornet's nest on the gnome-love list and so I have spent two days writing documents and pulling together notes of things to organise.
So here we are at the end of Wednesday and I haven't really got to a couple of things that I really wanted to do. Still, four days until I have to go back to work, so plenty of time to do stuff. :-)
My final submission to the January event was accepted today: a demonstration and discussion of accessibility technology (mostly what we have achieved in GNOME with some other bits thrown in) at the Open Source Software in Government mini-conference. Ironically, this talk was not accepted for the main conference, but it is probably more appropriate to present it to people with influence at the local government level in any case.
Since that makes four presentations I am giving in the first three days of the conference week, I appear to have over-committed myself again. And I still want to find ten minutes to at least stick my head in the door of the GNOME mini-conference at some point.
I have been surprised by how much I have been thinking about how information is presented using computers lately. Mostly this has been an internal argument with myself after Microsoft's announcement of the various engines behind the display in Longhorn. Like many people, I was a bit annoyed (but ultimately fatalistic) that they appear to have gone for a reinvention of existing technologies, rather than just implementing the existing stuff in innovative ways. I cannot really blame them though, since once a company says it is going to base something around a standard, people actually expect them to follow the standard and implement it correctly. Witness the grief that has been directed Microsoft's way over their incomplete (and incorrect) implementations of HTML and CSS2. Not that most of these complaints weren't justified, but if they are going to start with a fresh slate, it had to be awfully tempting to choose something where they could just say that their implementation was the standard.
People are already getting ready to flame me for that last bit, so let me clarify: I don't think that Microsoft's decision is ultimately for the greater good or anything like that. I think it's horrible and ultimately very bad for interoperability. But I cannot say I am completely taken aback. It also appears that things may not be as entirely bad as it seems. Jon Udell seems to be taking a fairly pragmatic viewpoint of things and following developments closely (it helps to be a widely read and respected technology writer -- people on the inside sometimes ring you up and clarify things or give you a heads up). His post today, for example, gives some hope that things may not be entirely beyond hope (Udell wrote one of the early articles about the wheel reinvention that seemed to be going on in Longhorn, so he is aware of the two sides of this coin).
Following on from the initial announcement, I was thinking about the more utopian view: what could be done with existing standards in a reasonable timeframe. My thinking goes like this (and almost every step can be challenged): start with an assumption that people really do like viewing their information in one client. This is reasonable, since when information is linked easily to other information, you invariably end up wanting to click around to other sites and staying within one application makes this flow more easily.
Now (it seems to me), two problems arise in practice (where I am taking "practice" to mean "starting from today's web browser and wanting to do stuff"). Firstly, some of the information will be in a form that your application (browser) can natively handle. Enter the plugin. This is something that either embeds in your browser or launches a separate application in order to let you view that PDF or Postscript file or OpenOffice.org or Keynote presentation. Hmm ... a slight disconnect from the smooth user experience there, since the plugin rarely blends entirely seamlessly into the experience.
The second problem is again created by the plugin style of architecture: you cannot intermingle different types of content. XML is designed to allow different languages to mix (see "namespaces"). But right this minute I cannot have a document that contains XHTML, Math ML, SVG and maybe even some stuff pulled in via SMIL and have it all seamlessly blend together. I can make the first two work together (or, at least some people can.). However, the SVG is going to appear in a box dedicated to the plugin and will be isolated from the rest of the content.
I am not ranting against the current state of play here. If I was capable of writing a web browser and permitted third-party plugins, I would probably say that each plugin can have a rectangle on the screen and they can use that and nothing else. The plugin's fingers will not be touching my main rendering space or any other plugin's space at all. Otherwise the slightest error will bring everything down. But I am talking about my thought experiment here: I am thinking about a place where plugins play nicely somehow.
Go further down this path: you click on a presentation in some format and it just appears in the browser (or whatever it is now called), seamlessly. You click on a PDF. No more "do you want to open with ... or save" dialog boxes or launching Adobe Acrobat embedded in the window. Instead, the document just shows up on the screen like a web page. Links inside the document work like a web page. If it is indeed Acrobat or something xpdf-based doing the rendering I don't want to know!
None of this stuff is easy. The pieces more or less exist, but when I think about how they would go together it becomes clear that the problems are not very deeply hidden. For example, the display interface is hard (I am talking about the interface between the plugins and what they call to do the rendering). It seems that most of the existing pieces would need extensive brain surgery. But it is a nice thought experiment and I have wasted a few mornings this week sitting in Starbucks, watching people run about the mall and thinking about this.
Then I imagine if I was a government blessed monopoly and think about what could be done with pieces of the puzzle like this. It could be something special (this last being an unusally tricky piece of Tim Bray's to read -- at least for me -- but eminently sensible).
[Sorry. This is all too long for the recentlog page, but now my braindump is done.]