Woefully Inadequate Kollaboration Implementation

It's a good thing that Tim Berners-Lee is still alive or he'd probably be turning in his grave. I was hoping to find that my latest exploration of Web-based Interfaces for Kommunicating Ideas would lead me to some Wonderfully Intuitive Kit Intended for sharing knowledge and collecting feedback, but sadly I'm Wistfully Imagining Knowledge Instruments that should have been around today - and aren't. And, yes, I'm talking about wikis.

As an aside, you've probably seen those word ladder puzzles in the Sunday papers where you have to turn one word into another by adding one letter at a time. Seeing as how I talked about Wii last time, and wiki this week, maybe I can continue the pattern. Any suggestions of a five-letter topic that contains the letters w, i, k, and i are welcome...  

Anyway, coming back to the original topic, it could all have been so different. Instead of the awful and highly limited format capabilities, and the need to spend an inordinate amount of time creating conversion tools, we could have had a ready-built, comprehensive, easy-to-use, and amazingly less grotty technology than wikis if we hadn't let some guy get in the way some time back in the mid nineties. Mind you, it's probably not wholly fair to blame it all on Marc Andreessen and Netscape; Microsoft followed the same path and I guess are equally guilty. I suppose the drive for world-wide adoption, the opening of the Web to the unwashed public, and commercial factors in general were the real reason behind it all.

You see, when our Tim and his team invented HTML and the associated server-side stuff, the intention was that it would be a collaboration and information sharing mechanism. User agents (what we now call browsers) would fetch content from a server if the user had read permission and display it in a documentation format using markup to indicate the structure and type of content it contained. Elements such as "p" (paragraph), "strong", "ul" (unordered list), "ol" (ordered list), "dl" (definition list), and the "h(x)" (heading) elements would indicate the type of content contained, not the way it should be displayed.

But, more than that, the user agent would allow the user to edit the content and then, providing they had write permission on the originating server, update the original document with their revisions and comments using elements such as "ins" and "del". However, as we've seen, the elements in HTML have come to represent the displayed format rather than the context of the content, and browsers are resolutely read-only these days. Of course, more recent mechanisms such as CSS and XML transformations allow us to move back to the concept of markup indicating context rather than display attributes. But if you want to see what it should have been like, download and install the W3C reference browser Amaya and see how it allows you to edit the pages it displays.

So, instead we had to invent a new way to do collaboration, and wiki caught on. OK, it's probably fine for quickly knocking up a few pages to allow users to edit, review, and provide feedback. But it's seriously broken compared to doing anything sensible like you can with an XML-based format (which includes HTML 4.x). It's a kind of "Web for dummies" approach, where the concept of nesting and formatting content consists of a few weird marker characters that easily get confused with the content - even to the extent that you need to "escape" things like variable names that start with an underscore.

I guess this railing against technology comes about because I just spent two days building a tool to convert our formatted Word docs (which use our own DocTools kit to generate a variety of outputs) into a suitable format for Codeplex wiki pages. I even had to build another "kludge" tool to add to our growing collection - it's the only way I can find to do the final content tweaks. All I can say is, whoever dreamed up this format never tried to do stuff like this with complicated multi-topic Word source documents...

And, worse still, you have to add each page to the wiki project site individually and then attach the image files to it. OK, so the tool does give you a TOC and text files you can copy, but it sure would be nice to have a way to bulk upload stuff. My current test document set has 59 pages, so I can see I'll be spending a whole day clicking Save, Attach, and Edit.

But maybe that has some advantages. I'll have less time to spend inflicting the general public with Wild and Incoherent Komplaints and Insults in my blog...