[Jon Udell] From Messaging to Syndication

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From: Adam Rifkin (Adam@KnowNow.Com)
Date: Thu Oct 12 2000 - 11:49:38 PDT

Thanks for the heads-up Derek:


 From Messaging To Syndication
By Jon Udell, Byte.com
Oct 6, 2000 (12:52 PM)
URL: http://www.byte.com/column/BYT20001005S0001

Last week, Matt O'Donnell kicked off a couple of long threads with this

"Are there systems that combine both a newsgroup (with Web-forum) and a
mailing list, so that users can read and write in all three mediums?"

Matt's question goes to the heart of an issue that has long fascinated me.
Today's Net is a hodgepodge of communications applications and protocols.
What I consider to be the standard Internet client is, in fact, a suite of
applications: the browser, the mailer, the newsreader. Each uses its own
protocol, and its own kind of data store. Well, OK, mail and news are very
close, but they're different enough to matter when you're building services
that integrate both. The bottom line is that while it's possible to
integrate these things, it's never easy, and the results are never entirely

The short answer to the question is that yes, there are systems that
combine mail, news, and the Web, and enable users to read and write in all
three media. One such system is Macrobyte Resources' Conversant, which you
can try online at the Free-Conversant site. At first glance, Conversant may
remind you of UserLand's Manila -- a Web-based content-management system
that's useful for calendar-driven weblogging. And indeed, the similarities
run deeper. Like Manila, Conversant is built on the Frontier scripting
platform. Like Manila, Conversant has an object database at its core, and
in that database, every piece of content is first and foremost a message.

What I love about this approach is the inherent duality of every document.
A page on a Conversant (or Manila) site is always, potentially, the
starting point for a threaded discussion. In Conversant, such a discussion
is tri-modal: it can happen on the Web, in e-mail, or -- a feature near and
dear to my heart -- in your newsreader.

Other groupware systems are similarly multi-modal, for example WebCrossing.
I applaud this multi-modal approach, and over the years I've built a few
such systems myself. But I have to admit the whole idea troubles me
somewhat. On the one hand, it's a good thing that the Web, e-mail, and news
are different media with different strengths. The Web's strengths are rich
content and (almost) no local state.

E-mail is best for offline use, and for most people it's the natural way to
communicate. News handles the threading that e-mail never got quite right.
But there are two dilemmas here. For implementers of multi-modal systems,
it's a major challenge to support three very different interfaces and
protocols. For users of such systems, the problem is that no single
interface unites all the best features. The diversity exists for a reason.
These applications came from different places in response to different
kinds of requirements, as Bjørn Borud points out:

"The reason for diversity among protocols is because it is hard to satisfy
many demands at the same time. "

It is far easier to design, implement and deploy a protocol that is
specific to a single problem domain than it is to do the same with a more
general protocol -- and do it well. The more general a protocol is, the
more complex it will be and the more effort will go into providing
implementations. If you have a simple protocol that is easier to implement
more people will use it.
I'll give you one example: the Internet. The Internet is only possible
because its core set of protocols consists of specific yet simple
protocols. Things like SMTP, DNS, NNTP, FTP, and HTTP.

Most "Web-reinventions" are usually bad client applications with a remote
interface. What surprises me is the willingness of the user to accept a
considerable decrease in speed, reliability, and functionality merely for a
single aspect: potential mobility. Many of us do, nonetheless, long for
unification -- especially when it comes to the many different ways we
communicate. It's instructive to consider Lotus Notes from this
perspective. Whatever you think of Notes (and I happen to admire it,
despite my preference for native Internet tools), the model was very
powerful: a single protocol, a single data format. Its equivalents of a Web
page, a discussion message, and an e-mail are all the same kind of thing:
records in a Notes database, that propagates (when it needs to) in a
standard way, and is usable online or offline.

It's not a simple or straightforward proposition to say "let'sjust mush all
this Internet stuff into a common protocol and data format." It may not be
the right idea at all. But it's hard not to want the resulting unity. It
looks as though an XML-over-HTTP call/response protocol such as SOAP,
coupled with XML-oriented logical (and maybe, where appropriate, physical)
data representation, may get us there.
Mark Wilcox:

"You do realize that Microsoft is heading toward this, using a combination
of WebDAV and SOAP? "

Yes. And Microsoft is busily at work on another key piece of the puzzle --
.NET. I've talked a lot lately about the sudden interest in peer-to-peer
(P2P) networking. What the .NET runtime aims to deliver is technology that
will, among other things, peer-enable the client. It will help to blur
distinction between local services and data, and remote services and data.
To see why this matters, consider Derek Robinson's take on a
universal-messaging interface:

"I've been musing about collaborative cumulative Web pages -- sortable by
date, thread or sender, either on the client or server-side -- with in-situ
editing embedded directly in the HTML (as it is at Standard Brains).
Visitors could simply start writing in a special DIV that has been made
editable by attaching the appropriate event handlers, with the rest of the
page off-limits to editing by visitors.

"The sort of Web page I'm imagining would operate somewhere between a home
page, weblogging, mail, and discussion lists/newsgroups. There could be a
"log-on" with passwords (done automatically by cookies) that would tailor
the page content and behavior, as displayed in visitors' browsers, to only
those things they are registered for.

"For example, people belonging to one group may see the entire page, family
members could see and leave private notes for one another, and people
subscribed to different discussion groups would get only the messages of
interest to them. RSS syndication could automatically interleave content
from many such personal "omnibus" pages, asynchronously updated as
individual pages within the webring are changed. Thus, your home page would
be a personal portal, aggregating material from other such "personal
portals" in your "personal Internet" of friends, family, and colleagues.
For example, the function now served by e-mail could be served by
reciprocal syndication with correspondents. To send an e-mail message to
someone, you'd compose the (rich content!) message in your home-page and
hit Send, whereupon a URL would be sent alerting them that there is a new
message waiting for them (for their eyes only!) on your home page. "

This sounds great. As described here, though, it's a Web-server-centric
solution, and that would be a problem for lots of people. The wireless
revolution notwithstanding, I don't think we can put the disconnected
client onto the endangered species list any time soon. Data replication to
and from intermittently connected devices is one of main reasons we depend
on e-mail. So, as Derek elsewhere acknowledges, that personal home page
ought to be mobile. P2P infrastructure ought to blur the distinction
between the page here on my PC, and the page out there on the server.

It's crucial to note the distinction between the kind of data replication
that e-mail does, and the kind I'm talking about here. Derek's proposal
raises a profound question: "Why does e-mail need to travel through the
network?" Why don't we just transmit metadata (e.g., message headers)
alerting one another to the availability and nature of corresponding data
(messages)? The Web, of course, works just this way. The Usenet doesn't,
but arguably should. Its architecture, if you stop to think about it, is an

Circa 1985, there were relatively few full-time Internet nodes. A
store-and-forward technology, UUCP, enabled intermittently connected nodes
to access the Internet. The first incarnation of the Usenet was therefore,
of necessity, a discussion system based on data replication. By the time
the Web emerged, it was no longer necessary to rely on replication as the
way to move data around. The world was sufficiently interconnected so that
metadata (hyperlinks) could refer to canonical (singular, non-replicated)

Well, to be fair, caching servers that mirror parts of the Web are part of
the story too, and always have been. But here's the key point: The Web may
opt to replicate data, to maximize convenience of access, but is not
required to replicate data in order for people to have use of it. I've
argued elsewhere that the Usenet ought to catch up with the Web in this
regard. The Usenet is drastically over-replicated. It ought to be
refactored. Instead of many copies of shallow wells of information, it
ought to reformulate itself as fewer copies of deeper and richer wells,
likewise e-mail.

It no longer makes sense, in many cases, to transport actual message
bodies. Derek puts it very nicely: "The function now served by e-
mail could be served by 'reciprocal syndication' with correspondents." What
we really need to exchange, in many cases, is only the message metadata.
Like RSS headline syndication, this syndication of message metadata would
preserve context. In the case of RSS, a headline refers to a document on a
website, and that document lives in a context. It's surrounded by similar
documents, by navigation and search tools that are (one hopes) optimized
for these documents.

E-mail sorely lacks this context-preserving property. Bits of
correspondence and documents end up scattered all over the place. There is
no transcript of an e-mail conversation, no reliable thread structure, no
single logical container that holds it all together, no canonical set of
messages and documents, no tools specialized to work with them. If messages
are stored centrally, and only metadata about messages is distributed, then
message stores become vastly more useful. One of the key benefits of news-
or Web-based discussions, and the reason I advocate this mode of
communication so fiercely, is precisely this centralization. Collaboration
is fluid, and if I'm pulled into an e-mail conversation midstream, I should
be able to jump into a complete context and bring myself up to speed.

Ultimately, of course, it's not centralization per se that we crave. It's
availability, completeness, and coherence. If my messages and documents
live out there in the cloud, and so do yours, and we notify one another by
reciprocal syndication, life's great until the network fails or we disconnect.

Centralization may buy us completeness and coherence, but availability is
an all-or-none proposition. As we use e-mail today, our messages and
documents are distributed. Some stuff lives out in the cloud, some stuff
lives down on our PCs, it's a mess. In this case, decentralization buys us
availability, but we sacrifice completeness and coherence. Can we have the
best of both worlds? Yes. If Derek's machine can synchronize with peers,
then his home-page/mail-server/discussion-list can live out there in the
cloud and down on his PC. It's always backed up, it's always as complete
and coherent as the latest synchronization, and it's always available to
everybody online, and to Derek offline. If the cloud-based version fails
but Derek's online, people might even be able to access his local version
directly. In this scenario there is still mobility of data, but it's a
different kind of mobility.

Messaging does not involve wholesale replication of data to all recipients.
It's just lightweight notification, with references. Those references point
to coherent clusters of data. If those clusters replicate, they do it in a
smart way. They only go to the few strategic locations where they need to go.

Jon Udell (http://udell.roninhouse.com/) was Byte Magazine's executive
editor for new media, the architect of the original www.byte.com, and
author of Byte's Web Project column. He's now an independent Web/Internet
consultant, and is the author of Practical Internet Groupware, from
O'Reilly and Associates. For more of Jon's Udell's columns, visit the
Tangled In The Threads index page:



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