The next thing

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.

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10 thoughts on “The next thing

  1. Reblogged this on Carpet Bomberz Inc. and commented:
    Not to worry, the idea is good, the logic sound. It’s just people being focused on immediate, pragmatic needs and not looking further. Bigger picture may eventually be important to calendar owners when competitors gain advantage and added value by having their calendars be aggregated easily through RSS subscription. When they guy next door starts getting all the traffic, they’ll see the value.

  2. Congrats on the long run you had with Elm City project. It isn’t Twitter or Google or Reddit,etc. But who cares? It’s technically sound and people who don’t see value in it are the same ones that jump on bandwagons when a competitor starts getting more traffic. Once people see their competitors calendars getting aggregated and consumed and wonder what they’re doing wrong, they’ll jump on Elm City and easily subscribed calendars more out of fear and competitive pressure, than out of a perceived strategic value. Lets hope that happens sooner rather than later. It was a good run and onward and upward.

  3. Thanks Eric. I have not been able to jump start the bandwagon effect but I agree that if this is going to happen, that’s how it must happen. The stakeholder cooperation issue is huge, though.

    I can’t tell you how many CMS vendors I’ve asked: “Why don’t you support iCalendar?” To which the reply is ‘Customers aren’t asking.” In a few places, now, customers /are/ asking. Not many enough for a tipping point, though.

    Then there are all the local organizations that have balked because they’re invested in content management systems that don’t support iCalendar.

    Then there all the media organizations that have balked because they think they should exclusively own the inbound feeds, as opposed to adding value to the flow and charging for that. (Ironically, they overlook that the data they wish to own isn’t theirs in the first place.)

    Then there are the foundations that have balked because they know that Microsoft is evil.

    Then there are the local and state governments that have balked because while they now see government as a producer of open data, they can’t see government as a bully pulpit from which to encourage local groups and organizations to produce their own open data.

    There’s tremendous potential synergy among these stakeholders, but I haven’t been able to show it in a compelling way. And that’s on me. I haven’t figured out how to create something that draws them together.

  4. Jon,

    MANY thanks for all the work you’ve done over the years to try to make this under-appreciated part of the Internet work better. Thanks for all you’ve done! And the peer-to-peer Web work sounds VERY cool! Best wishes with all of that and I’ll definitely keep watching that.

    Best wishes,

  5. Too bad, I have followed the ElmCity project with great interest: I thought before a talk you gave at the Guardian in 2009 (but does not reach back further), to enjoying the benefits of the Baltimore event calendar, to making my own little forays into getting people to collaborate better using calendaring.

    True, “Calendaring is people”. I still hope the idea will take off one day (but what does the future of RSS look like now?).

    Good luck with your next project, seems also a worthy cause – hope that will not jinx it :-)


  6. “But what does the future of RSS look like now?” A very pertinent question. If RSS or iCalendar didn’t exist we would need to invent them. Happily they do exist. Unhappily, mainstream experiences on the web increasingly obscure them and the underlying pub/sub mechanism they enable. But the need for that mechanism is, if anything, greater than ever. And progress is circular: So, we’ll see.

  7. Jon,

    Like you said to me a while ago abotu Domain of One’s Own, you won’t see the immediate fruits of the Elm City work for a while, someone had to hoe the soil and cultivate the land. What’s more, I think the move to a peer-to-peer web is abstracting out the work you’ve already been doing with Elm City on a broader level—which is another way at the same thing. In fact, I’m really fired up you’re making the switch because I think some deep thinking around the vision, architecture, and implementation of the peer-to-peer web is crucial right now—and who better than you?

    Congrats on the next thing, I’m selfishly very, very excited for it!

  8. Hello Jon……………….

    I first heard about ECP @ a small open house at “Spark” in Ann Arbor. I’m fascinated by the concept and have written a business proposal or narrative advocating for a directory of events open to the public – area happenings –

    It’s a 5,400 word plan – enough to get the idea across and to energize the mind. It’s an easy read.
    It entails a web site, subscription based and host sponsored (income from both sides) involving the listing of and interactivity with on going events and activities – the
    controlling of a definable subject matter, arts/events/activities/entertainment (A/E) into a new and dynamic platform.
    All A/E is essentially tuned into a directory, an entity in and of itself and it’s commoditized, positioned in a way as to create value and to monetize.

    Thus, this is a CONTENT site………one that can well integrate into a CALENDER site.

    Be mindful, this is but a narrative or “position” piece, not at all written in the business plan format. It’s thus quite lucid, conveying the ideas proposed.
    This needs only about 30 minutes of a visionary’s reading and probable Q & A (for which I’d love to be a part). Large up side.

    I’d appreciate feedback anyone regarding this……including a meet and greet sit down discussion.

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