For many years I have tried, and mostly failed, to get people to appreciate the value of structured information. Sure, I’ve connected with the chattering classes who Twitter, blog, and read TechMeme, but I’ve only been preaching to the choir. Inside our echo chambers we grok XML, tagging, syndication, and information architecture. Out in the real world, though, most people aren’t hopping on that cluetrain, and that’s almost as true today as it was a decade ago.
Of course I’m not alone in my quest. Tim Berners-Lee has also tried, and mostly failed, to evangelize the power of structured information. The gating factor always was, and still is, data entry. You can go a long, long way with unstructured information, as Google has brilliantly shown. In late 2002 Sergey Brin told me:
Look, putting angle brackets around things is not a technology, by itself. I’d rather make progress by having computers understand what humans write, than by forcing humans to write in ways computers can understand.
That’s a great way to make progress, but we’re not in an either/or situation here. There’s also huge progress still to be made by enabling (not forcing) people to write in ways that computers can understand more deeply and effectively.
Jean Paoli saw an opportunity to do something about that on a large scale. It was also late 2002 when I first started talking to him about the injection of XML capabilities into Office. I evangelized that stuff long before I became Microsoft evangelist, because I believed then, and still believe today, that it’s a crucial enabler for a world facing challenges that are infinitely compounded by almost universally crummy information management.
In the flurry of commentary surrounding yesterday’s approval of Office Open XML as an ISO standard, I haven’t seen anyone thank Jean and his team for having the vision to transform Office in this important way, and the constancy of purpose to make it real. Well, I’ll say it. Thanks!