The Elm City project was my passion and my job for quite some time. It’s still my passion but no longer my job. The model for calendar syndication that I created is working well in a few places, but hasn’t been adopted widely enough to warrant ongoing sponsorship by my employer, Microsoft. And I’ll be the last person to complain about that. A free community information service based on open standards, open source software, and open data? Really? That’s your job? For longer than anyone could reasonably have expected, it was.
So now I’m on to the next project, one that you might think even more unlikely for a Microsoft employee. I’m helping Yaron Goland create something we are both passionate about: the peer-to-peer Web. Yaron’s project is called Thali, and I’ll say more about it later.
But first I want to sum up what I’ve learned from the Elm City effort.
The elevator pitch for Elm City is short and sweet. It’s RSS for calendars. That implies a pub/sub network based on a standard exchange format, in this case iCalendar. And an ecosystem of interoperable software components. And layered on top of that, an ecosystem of cooperating stakeholders.
On the interop front iCalendar doesn’t fare as well as you’d expect, given that it’s been around since 1999 and is baked into calendar software from Google, Microsoft, and Apple (among many others) that’s used every day by hundreds of millions of people. Why is interop still a problem? Because while in theory people and organizations can form iCalendar-based pub/sub networks, in practice few ever try. So iCalendar feeds don’t interoperate nearly as well as you’d expect.
One of the legacies of Elm City is the iCalendar Validator, inspired by the RSS/Atom feed validator and implemented by Doug Day. It has helped developers iron out some of the interop wrinkles. But the truth is that iCalendar itself isn’t the problem. It’s implemented well enough, in a wide variety of calendar app and services, to enable much more and much better synchronization of public calendars than we currently enjoy. The iCalendar ecosystem has issues but that’s not why the robust calendar networks I envision don’t exist in every city and town.
It’s the stakeholder ecosystem that never came together. Here are the dramatis personae:
- Local groups and organizations
- Media (especially newspapers)
- State and local governments
- Non-profits and foundations
- Vendors of content management systems
I’ve worked with each of them separately. But no one kind of stakeholder can push the Elm City model over the top. That will require collaboration, in cities and towns, among stakeholders. Which, as I’m hardly the first to learn, is a tough sell. I hope somebody smarter than me can figure that out. Maybe that will even be a smarter future version of myself. But meanwhile, I’ll be supporting Yaron Goland’s mission to enable a web of people and devices that communicate directly and securely.