Jamie Thomson

Thoughts, about stuff

Windows Live – a poor web citizen?

with 5 comments

Data on the web

Regular readers around here will know that I am a Windows Live enthusiast however what you may not know is that in my “other” life (i.e. at my job) I spend my time working with data and databases. Storing data, querying it, moving it, changing it…these are the things I spend my days doing and moreover I enjoy it so much its kind of a hobby as well (fellow geeks will identify with this I’m sure).

One facet of my work that really fascinates me (and what I would dearly love to spend more time doing) is learning about how data is represented on the web and working with that data to do interesting things with it. You might ask “what data exists on the web?”. The answer is “humongous amounts of the stuff”, in fact in my opinion every single web page out there is a piece of data and those facets that I talked about before (storing, querying, moving, changing) apply just as much to web pages as they do to more conventional kinds of data such as your banking transactions or medical history.

Microformats

One of the most interesting disciplines in the area of data on the web is the use of microformats. You can read more about microformats at http://microformats.org/ but in their own words microformats can be described as:

Designed for humans first and machines second, microformats are a set of simple, open data formats built upon existing and widely adopted standards. Instead of throwing away what works today, microformats intend to solve simpler problems first by adapting to current behaviors and usage patterns (e.g. XHTML, blogging)

http://microformats.org/about

Err…what? Ok, I’ll try and explain a different way. I suspect that everyone reading this knows that web pages are written in a language called Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), right? Well, microformats are extra pieces of information that can be added to HTML that can make the web pages understood by computers but that don’t affect how the web page appears to us humans because the extra microformat gunk that is added simply gets ignored by your browser.

Microformats have been defined for many of the most common types of data that exists on the web including:

  • Calendars and events (hCalendar)
  • Contacts (hCard)
  • Reviews (hReview)
  • Tags (hTag)   (N.B. The ”clubhouse”, ”story” & ”microformats” tags that you see at the bottom of this blog post are examples of hTags)
  • Latitude and Longitude coordinates (geo)
  • Cooking recipes (hRecipe)

Hopefully it becomes obvious why microformats can become useful. It is now possible to write software that understands web pages rather than just displaying the HTML to us so that we can understand it. Companies that run search engines are very excited about the possibilities of using microformats and indeed Google have embraced them wholeheartedly.

Let’s have an example of usage of a microformat. Upcoming.org is a site that allows people to advertise events that they have organised and I have come across one such listing for an event called Opencoffee at The University of Sussex on 5th November:

image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If we take a look at the HTML for that page we can see the following:

<span class="geo" style="visibility:hidden">
<abbr class="latitude" title="50.8742997742">50.8742997742</abbr>
<abbr class="longitude" title="-0.0828099996">-0.0828099996</abbr>

</span>
I’ve underlined the parts of this HTML snippet that are part of a microformat; specifically its the geo microformat. The HTML has been marked up with the latitude and longitude of this event and even though that information is not displayed on the web page it can be read by software that understands microformats in order that it can provide more information to us. I have a piece of software installed that can read geo microformats and then display those coordinates on Google Maps:
image
If you want to try this out for yourself then you can install the same software (it is free). Its a Firefox add-in called Operator and is available at https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/4106. After installing, whenever you visit a web page containing microformats using Firefox the add-in will tell you what microformats are installed on that page and enable you to do something with them. For the upcoming example above Operator tells me that the page contains one geo microformat, one hCard microformat and four of various other types:
image
There is a similar add-in available for Internet Explorer called Oomph. It works differently to Operator although it has a similar effect, read more at http://visitmix.com/lab/oomph
 
In short microformats are a burgeoning part of the web that, whilst being invisible to the common user, are working to make the web a better place for all of us.

Microformats and Windows Live

Ok that’s an introduction to microformats, now why am I writing this blog post? Well, I’m interested in knowing which microformats are supported by Windows Live and indeed where. Unfortunately I have to report that the answer to that question is absolutely nowhere whatsoever. I visited:

and was perturbed to find that, according to Operator, not one of those sites utilises microformats. Not a single one. I had assumed that http://calendar.live.com and http://people.live.com at the very least would certainly be using microformats because hCard and hCalendar were designed specifically for the type of data that these pages contain. Sadly not!

I’m really quite demoralised about this. If ever there were a way for Windows Live to win some favour with the type of people that routinely lambast the various services then adopting open standards such as microformats would be an ideal way to do it. Sadly it seems supporting open standards isn’t high on the agenda for those in Windows Live; disappointing indeed.

This is just another example of Windows Live’s existent as what I would refer to as a poor web citizen. If you want further evidence of this then go and read about their frankly quite embarrassing URL formats on my past blog post What’s with Windows Live URLs?

I can only hope to see some uptake in the use of microformats in Windows Live wave 4 but I already know that that is a forlorn hope!

@Jamiet

clubhouse Tags: clubhouse, story, microformats

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Written by Jamiet

November 3, 2009 at 10:52 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. Windows Live appears to be me to be a complete after thought, with little serious weight behind it. There are splashes of interest, but it is for the most part incoherent. What’s it’s Unique Selling Point?As for Microformats – many years ago a few mates and myself did start talking about defining such formats, our idea was more around RSS 2.0 extensions to allow mass aggregation of reviews etc, but same sorta thing. As with most of my ideas, it didn’t get much past the back of the fag packet, but I do really like the concept.

    David

    November 3, 2009 at 11:24 pm

  2. This shouldn’t be taken as being representative of Windows Live’s position on microformats but besides "geek cred" what would be the value of placing microformats on those sites? I might be able to ask around at work but would love to have a good reason for why I’m asking in the first place.

    Dare

    November 3, 2009 at 11:31 pm


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