Learning from the web's successes and failures

by Jack Seay - Nov. 23, 2005 - freely distributable

The web works, after a fashion, and is usable and scalable. Does this mean that Xanadu isn't needed?

I don't think so.

I, and many others, have wasted hundreds of hours trying to learn the contorted methods of building web pages: CSS, HTML, XML, XSLT, Javascript, etc., and expensive, difficult to learn authoring tools.

The web still lacks unbreakable 2 way links.

Millions of documents of all kinds of media are still unavailable on the web because of the lack of a simple payment sytem so that creators of content are paid fairly.

I still can't freely quote any document at any length desired without having to ask permission.

I still can't easily mark up, annotate, link (spans between any documents), and bookmark exact locations in any type of document.

It is still not easy to maintain multiple formats of multiple versions of a document, and be able to mix, match, and compare specific versions and formats to choose the best for a particular purpose.

I still can't choose to view any document in a variety of different views that suit particular needs: outlines, scatter diagrams, annotations, footnotes, comments, revision comparison, dictionary and thesauri fast lookup, multi-typed links, choice of multiple-dimensions of content, etc.

What can we learn from the web?

Use freely accessible plain text markup tagging (but not embedded), if possible. Choose non-proprietary data formats wherever feasible. Use text (international character-set and math symbol friendly) rather than binary files when there is an even choice (this doen't mean to transmit un-encypted). This might be a sticky point. The permascroll, by definition, is non-editable. You can't allow editing the middle content (although marking sections as non-readable or zeroing out may be needed in cases of copyright infringement, plagiarism, or other legal reasons). Only appending to the end is allowed. Otherwise, versions and links are destroyed. So it needs to be read-append only. It may need to be encrypted when stored in backup locations. It will need to have pointers to transclusions, links, formatting, versions, etc. Can these be in a format similar to Rebol blocks? Xanadu is more closely akin to databases than to text editors. It will contain many pointers, and not just be long strings of text that is freely edited and tossed out in big chunks to browsers. Whether binary or text-based files are used will need to be decided by the programmers based on which works best. The ent (one of Xanadu's data structures) is a variation of a binary tree. Whether it can be implemented with plain text files, perhaps making it less brittle, is something I don't know the answer to, but is something to look into. Perhaps the text in the permascroll could be non-binary, then the lists or database of links, versions, authors, formats, and dimensions could be in other external files that point to spans of the permascroll (see Docuplex). The permascroll would not be all in one file or even one server, but addressing it would treat it as if it was one huge file.

Distribute the content, cacheing, backups, and processing widely.

Make it possible to read and edit offline. This shouldn't be a problem with Xanadu, since particular versions are stable, and editing creates a new version.

Make it possible to read and edit without technical training (only the most basic web pages are easy to edit). Careful attention to ease of use is essential for wide acceptance.

Link it to and from the web, even transcluding web documents (even though these links would be neither two-way nor unbreakable). This would make the transition easier by inviting more users and leveraging the mass of web files now available.

Just because the web is a success and wildly popular doesn't mean it is the best possible method of creating, editing, and distributing our literature. Can it be improved? Yes. Can it be replaced? Yes, but only with something that meets the needs the web does, and others as well, and does it much better.

The more I use the web, the more I hate it. When that is the case, something is wrong. It is because I am aware of possible alternatives that would be much better. There have been many other programs that the more I use, the more I love using them. That is how it should be.

"Fall in love with your life's work again, my friend, or your energy will wane, your voice will falter and there will be nothing to prove but the fact that you are taking up valuable space." Anon

"If you are looking for a big opportunity, find a big problem." Anon

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has." Margaret Mead

The web methodology may be used now by hundreds of millions, but it started with just a few people, then spread. The same can be true for Xanadu.