Monthly Archives: April 2006

An idea to set content free

Yesterday I mentioned how wikis could be useful way to reflect that fact that use cases, requirements, functionality, design and other aspects of software engineering are dynamic considerations, not static ones. While I mentioned that tools exist to capture the point-in-time state of a wiki into, for example a Word document or a PDF file, I didn’t talk about content flow in the other direction.

I believe that an effective way to seed a grassroots effort to employ wikis in a product development process (PDP) requires the presence of tools that take an existing document baseline and code baseline and produce a flexible environment such as a mature wiki implementation provides.

This belief is based on my experience with establishing UML diagrams as a standard, dense way to communicate design information. (See Martin Fowler’s “UML as Sketch” post for where I stand on UML’s role in a PDP.) During this process, the ability to extract UML class and sequence diagrams from existing code was valuable in establishing what well-formed “sketches” should look like. It also helped to quickly establish a base of work from which to build upon, versus starting from scratch.

So, why not apply reverse- and roundtrip-engineering from the code arena to the content arena?

From pile to circular file…with a pit stop

Recent pile of articles and other content in my office at work

Being focused often comes at the expense of my office desktop surface area. Since I’m known as a proficient pile herder, I thought I’d try my hand at herding the above pile of magazines, ripped-out articles, lose notes and other content into the trash while first mining the following persistent notes of interest.

  • Bits to Atoms” – “…display becomes wallpaper you scroll, and if you want more display, you add more wallpaper. If your server needs more resources, you open the top and pour in more server.” -Neil Gershenfeld, Director, Center for Bits and Atoms, MIT
  • After reading John Grisham’s The Broker while on vacation, I now know that adesso is Italian for “now.”
  • No Private Vistas” – “Look at the big picture [of Vista’s repeated delays], and you’ll see a nasty object in what happens when you (and others) put too much trust in your ability to deliver software.” -Frank Hayes
  • Simple Minds” -The current obsession with simplicity beats making products stupidly complex. But it’s built on at least one false premise, that less is more. More is more, and it always has been and always will be. Good products can and should be feature-rich, ladden with information, and easy to use.” -Paul Kedrosky
  • …but, “Are More Features Always Better?
  • Evolve or Fail” and “Where’s Your Edge?
  • Virtualization’s Real Impact” – “[In 10 years] You’ll no longer think of a server as being something other than how you think of a disk in a disk array today.” – Mendel Rosenblum, co-founder and Chief Scientist, VMware
  • Many Ways to Pretend” – “If misleading terminology were a crime, Microsoft’s Virtual PC for Mac would deserve the death penalty.” – Tom Yager
  • Doing Things Right” (derived from “Web 2.0“) – “The fact that Google is a ‘Web 2.0′ company shows that, while meaningful, the term is also rather bogus. It’s like the word allopathic. It just means doing things right, and it’s a bad sign when you have to have a special word for that.” -Paul Graham, author, Hackers and Painters
  • Getting Real” – DARPA’s Real-World Reasoning Project (beyond brute force)

Ah…now that was cathartic! :-)

Free Content Now!

…as in “set my content free!”

Who “owns” the content? Where does control over it really lie? Is ownership effectively in the hands of its creator or its creator’s employer? Or is ownership defaulted to its application due to closed, proprietary formats?

Sure, ECM systems like Documentum fully manage unstructured content regardless of whether that content lives in XML, Word or AutoCAD files. But what if I want to repurpose the essence of a document beyond, for example, renditioning a Word document to a PDF file? Should you be forced to depend upon commercial (not free) translators and integrators just to rightfully access your thoughts put to digitial media?

I think not!

For example, there is an ongoing discussion at work about the need for living functional and design documents. Surely there’s a way to move beyond confusing point-in-time snapshots with present reality. But isn’t this what happens when you promote the use of any document format alone on your development process? What about leveraging Wiki’s instead?

A wiki can be an effective medium to convey dynamic design. Tools exist today to create formatted wiki snapshots as documents For example, I know of at least one tool that creates Word document representations of FlexWiki-based wiki’s; I’m certain there are others for various static captures of different wiki implementations. “Wiki + document snapshots” seems more aligned to the needs of cross-function dev teams than does “documents + code.” What do you think?

In the first issue of Free Software Magazine, Marco Fioretti states the following in his “Format Wars” article: “Almost all software applications are used to manage information so these applications are worthless without information to process, store and display…If information exists before (and independent of) the applications, the file format used to store the information should be defined before hand. In this ideal situation, you could potentially write several programs (released under free or non-free licenses) to handle your information.” With the emergence of open, XML-based office document formats from OASIS and ECMA I believe you will be able to embed additional content within these metaformats (i.e. .odt as .jar and .docx and .zip), which can lead a whole new class of knowledge worker experiences as well as new applications built to leverage the presence and meaning of specialized embedded content–not just, for example, Office add-ins but entirely new standalone applications without regard for Office.

In the eleventh issue of FSM, Tom Kuipers and Alan Berg state the following in their “ODF in Action” article: “An important benefit of standards is the enabling of easy and transparent exchange of data. You are not tied to a specific application or vendor. This interoperability does not just exist on the application level but also on platform level as well…When exchanging documents, data loss is obviously not acceptable. We consider losing the layout as a form of data loss as well, and therefore the loss of layout is a serious matter.” Certainly rendition fidelity or transformation fidelity should be able to address layout (presentation) as well as data (content)–sometimes the layout is the critical element to make words, charts, pictures, etc. accessible, meaningful and/or memorable. However, I don’t believe that there should be a tight coupling between data and layout (e.g. cross-cutting concerns that are unconcerned with visualization/rendering).

In this recent post, “Set My Data Free,” Jon Udell essentially voices the same concern I began this post stating. Whether you call it “data,” “information,” or “content,” we want you to respect that its ownership should not be dictated by format but by other reasonable and appropriate policies.

Where have I been?

For one thing, I’ve been busy shipping software.

One of my responsibilities at EMC | Documentum is the platform architecture that supports the recently released EMC Archive Services for Email 5.3 product (aka EASE, AS4E, E5). This product was a challenging but rewarding effort that spanned EMC Software Group (ESG) divisions (i.e. Content Management Software Group (CMSG) and Information Management Software Group (IMSG)). As CMSG Platform Email Architect, I got to work closely not only with the talented engineers in our platform but also with the talented engineers from the EmailXtender team in Nashua, NH, and the Documentum Client for Outlook (DCO) team now in Cambridge, MA.

Gartner has a good overview of how EASE fits into EMC’s broader, integrated content archiving strategy. Internet News also has an overview describing the business needs EASE is designed to address.

Of course, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy; so, I’ve taken some vacation and continue to read at a fairly good pace a number of books, which I hope to blog about soon.

Until then, take care…

…P.S. Today is the final day to sign-up for consideration in the EASE 5.3 Early Deployment Program (EDP).