in Markup, RDF, Semantic Web

RDF vs Microformats and the Semantic Web

James Simmons writes about some of the pros and cons of Microformats and RDF (with an extended discussion at InfoQ). On the benefits of Microformats (with which he means Microformats.org-style microformats) he mentions:

  • Designed for humans first, machines second
  • Modularity / embeddability
  • Enables and encourages decentralized development, content, services
  • A design principle for formats
  • Adapted to current behaviors and usage patterns
  • Highly correlated with semantic XHTML

I am new to RDF and the semantic web (but have used microformats in previous web projects) but to me the advantages of RDF and RDFa (the “sprinkling” framework) are clear. Microformats may work for a limited set of use cases but I have not yet understood how to use microformats efficiently for the bulk of what I need. However, it is great that a lot of development is going on in the area of embedding machine readable data in documents. Without microformats the pace would probably have been much slower.

Here are my thoughts on the items that James mention:

Designed for humans first, machines second: For me the HTML document that carries the information is for humans. With it we apply styling and markup to allow humans (and their assistive devices) to understand the content. The embedding of data is for machines primarily. Although advanced editors may be great at editing HTML, the fact is that most users are not.

Modularity / embeddability: Embeddability is of course necessary. The problem is that the current versions of (X)HTML were not designed for embedding data. This means that Microformats have to rely on the attributes and elements available of which none were primarily designed for stuffing machine readable information in. RDFa, on the other hand, is making rapid progress. You can use XHTML 1.1 with RDFa right now and validate it with the W3C validator.

Enables and encourages decentralized development, content, services: I am not sure I understand this one, at least not for the development of vocabularies. Microformats encourages a centralized way of storing vocabularies on their web site in a format that isn’t machine readable. The power of RDF is that vocabularies can be stored anywhere in a machine readable way. The world is big and the web has been built to support interaction in a decentralised way. Development of a vocabulary is a local thing for me.

A design principle for formats: See above. Why have a design principle for all? Everyone has different needs and resources and I would prefer to adopt the vocabulary design process to each business case. The Microformats.org website lists design patterns to use when sprinkling a document with embedded data. Instead of calling them design patterns you could say “seeing how far we can go in interpreting the current HTML specification”.

Adapted to current behaviors and usage patterns: Sure, if you limit yourself to a few HTML-adept bloggers. I would venture to guess that there are more people publishing information on the web that know little to nothing about markup than people who do. And they shouldn’t need to. Peple working with information need tools. Tools should help out with the actual markup and embedding of data.

Highly correlated with semantic XHTML: And this is good. But it contradicts the previous statement. Current behaviour is to not use semantic XHTML. It is only a limited number of websites that use valid markup. Both RDFa and Microformats will hopefully help in raising awareness of semantic markup.

What do you think?