On Firefox 3 and microformats with Michael Kaply

Microformats support is one of the most relevant features coming to Firefox 3.

It is not one of those instant gratification features like spell checking or tabbed browsing. It’s in the league of offline web applications support, web content handling and live bookmarks.

Its advantages are not obvious and even hard to explain to some degree as they only become noticeable when more web content producers start using it. But just like with web feeds (RSS, Atom), once it catches on it will be hard to imagine a web without them.

To talk about microformats and their progress in their way to Firefox 3 final, I talked with Michael Kaply, the owner of the microformats support module and author of Operator, a powerful extension that allows Firefox to interact with microformats and act as a data distributor between different web services.

Mozilla Links: I would like to start asking you what does the semantic web mean and what’s the role of microformats in making it real?

Michael Kaply: In my mind, the semantic web means that information on the web isn’t just available as web pages anymore. Smaller pieces of information are identified and uniquely accessible so that they can be linked to or mashed up or sent to a web service or whatever.

Microformats is certainly a step in that direction because it identifies the information on web pages. There’s more work to do to make those pieces of information uniquely accessible. RDFa and eRDF seek to solve those kind of problems.

What microformats already exist? How mature are them?

There are microformats for contact information (hCard), calendar events (hCalendar), geographic locations (geo), resumes (hResume), reviews (hReview), music (hAudio) and more. Some of these are mature and some of them are still being worked on.

Are they standardized by some organization to avoid duplicate efforts and overlapping?

The microformats community at microformats.org works to organize efforts around creating new microformats and avoiding duplicate efforts. That’s the best place to find the latest information about these and other microformats.

Are microformats on track to be released with Firefox 3?

We are definitely still targeting the microformats work for Firefox 3.

As far as I have read about microformats implementation in Firefox 3 PRD it’s not clear to me whether it will provide the infrastructure (API) for plugins and extensions to add existing microformats, access them and associate actions? Or will it take the next step and include a number of predefined microformats, actions and UI (user interface) providing the full Operator feature set? Has it been decided which way to go?

We are still in the process of making these kinds of decisions. At this point, we have an API for accessing microformats that we are planning to make available in Firefox 3. This API will allow extension developers to easily integrate microformats into their extensions. It will include access to a set of default microformats, as well as the ability to add additional microformats.

As far as the UI goes, that hasn’t been finalized yet. I have just released a new version of Operator this week (0.8) that has a sidebar included which is one of the proposed ideas for microformats in Firefox 3.

Microformat UI is a very difficult subject. Microformats could be indicated by UI in the page, but people are averse to having the web browser modify web pages. The other problem is that microformats are not very common yet, so if we put UI in the web browser, it needs to be “transient UI” – that is UI that comes and goes without interfering with the user experience, similar to how the feed button works today. We have yet to find a good solution for “transient UI.”

As far as the actions go, we haven’t finalized how microformat actions will work in Firefox 3, but it will be related to the new content handling code that is going into Firefox 3.

Do you think Operator makes Firefox the information broker it is now expected to become? Or, are microformats just part of the equation?

I think Operator is a step in the right direction, but what’s missing are the services that can do more compelling things with the information. Adding contacts to an address book or adding events to a calendar is interesting, but not very compelling.

Other terms that have been used around this area is “instant mashup” or “end user mashup.” I think that is really where things get interesting. Instead of relying on developers to write mashups, users can use something like Operator to mashup the data themselves. The key is having more web services that can receive the data.

Certainly microformats are a big part of this equation, because users can finally get just the data out and send it somewhere.

What can we expect from Operator 1.0?

My primary focus with Operator has been to experiment with different microformats UI in Firefox. The latest version (0.8) continues that trend, adding a sidebar as well as an icon on the location bar. I’ve also added the ability to auto-hide the toolbar.

So when I look forward to Operator 1.0, I primarily think about finalizing the “perfect UI” for microformats and having a very mature API to allow other people to plug interesting functionality into Operator.

[The screenshot below shows Operator 0.8 including the new location bar icon and the sidebar that give access to microformats found in a web page and actions defined for each of them like adding a contact to an online address book or find an address in a map service.]

Finally, I would like to ask you to tell as a little about your work at IBM. I think it is a good example of private companies collaborating with an open source project like Mozilla, an aspect that many users and people interested in open source sometimes ignore.

I have actually been working for IBM on Mozilla (and before that Netscape) for almost 11 years now. I started working on Netscape Navigator for OS/2 and since then have worked on various ports of Netscape and Mozilla for OS/2, as well as coordinating other contributions by IBM to the Mozilla project. IBM has actually been involved with the Mozilla project from the very beginning on both a project and technical level.

My personal work involves things like making sure Firefox works well for IBM employees as well as working with IBM products to make sure their products work with Firefox. I also do some work to make Firefox a viable platform for the enterprise, including things like the Client Customization Kit (CCK) and the Enterprise Working Group. The Operator extension evolved out of some other work we were doing around “end user mashups.”

I want to thank Michael for his time and interest in spreading the word about microformats.

I can only encourage users and content producers to explore the benefits of them and enrich their content and web experience with their use. Content management systems including blogging software have a main role in making the semantic web a reality.

I for one, am already trying some WordPress plugins that add some microformats support including hReview which I plan to use for the several extensions and other products’ reviews I regularly write.

You can get Operator at Mozilla Add-ons.

You can check a review of Operator I wrote a few months ago to get more details on what it does and how it enables an even more connected web.

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