I just came across a great take from Bill Scott on the question of data, and what makes it useful.
Bill, one of the guys responsible for the Rico open source AJAX project, is working on definition of “richness”, which is a good thing. I mean, how often do we talk about Rich Internet Applications, without considering what the “rich” actually means?
Richness in terms of a user interface means that the application provides a rich interaction model, a rich visual model and richness in the data and logic it provides. This is in fact a good way to think about richnessin three dimensions: the visual dimension, the interaction dimension and the data dimension. These three dimensions provide ways for communication to happen between the user and the system. They allow the user to visualize the system, interact with it and change or find information it contains.
Axiom of Richness: An interface is only as rich as its ability to communicate in all three dimensions.
Bill also recently put forward the idea of Paged Internet Applications (PIA) as the precursor to Rich Internet Apps, the model that Web 2.0 is beginning to supplant.
What really struck me in Bill’s argument about the richness question was the focus on data. First he explains what data richness is:
The final ingredient to rich communication is what the user can do with the world of information available on the web. And more specifically how tailored the information and state is to the user. If the application can remember the users previous state, allow the user to perform rapid lookups in place and do validation inline (all without a page refresh) then the potential for richness is even greater. Without the ability to change and find information rapidly, visual and interaction richness are severely limited. It is like owning a sports car but not being able to drive it.
If the information is relevant and lively then the interface will have the feel of richness. This is an essential ingredient to the experience that makes the Web 2.0 a platform for the come-to-me web.
Then he makes the killer statement, the justification for this post:
Being able to move data freely in and out of the users space is a key to creating a rich experience in all three dimensions. In the classic web model we had a lot of freedom along the visual dimension (sometime to our own injury 🙂 We had a lot of freedom along the interaction dimension… but it was limited since the sandbox was the page. Ajax broke down the wall of the data dimension– enhancing the other dimensions along with it.
Great job “giving it a name” Bill. This definition talks directly to the notion of Web 2.0, and what it means.
Dan Farber calls it the “recombinant web“.
Tim O’Reilly goes with Web 2.0, debating Tim Bray.
One key takeaway from the Web 2.0 panel was that data, interface and metadata no longer need to go hand in hand. When working on an application/website, one thinks of the overall picture including the data, the metadata, and the interface. With Web 2.0 apps, the data might be from one place, the metadata from another, and the interface from a third party or a remix. [italics mine]
That’s the charm, and that’s what a lot of different companies are going to fall down on. You don’t add value to a network by preventing free data flows, particularly when that means locking people’s data into “your” applications. Note the prevalance of the venerable MP3.
Even Andrew Orlowski, contrarian and DRM apologist, is a big believer in the need for people to own, and be able to reclaim, the data they store online.
So back to Bill and my key takeaway. Why is the third dimension so important? Because you never know when data will be useful in a new context. It is only a matter of time.
It is often easier to reuse data than extend an existing application to do something new. Data is not only useful at a point in time, rather it has a potential value into the future (Long Tail). It is open data, not DRM mechanisms, though that will enable Long Tail affects. (One reason Microsoft OneNote, for example, disturbs me a bit, even though I like the app).
We used to call closed systems proprietary, in an enterprise context, based on what operating system was in use. Today though seemingly everything gets called an “open system”. Perhaps we need to rethink our use of proprietary. Any application that munges metadata, data and presentation is a monolith, and a “poor” one at that.
Walled gardens will lose to open fields. If you don’t believe me ask a mathematician…
To sum up: Rich apps allow data reuse and freedom. That’s data in the third dimension.