Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant
Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
Bringing Out the Dead (Technologies)
Some of us are old enough to remember owning and playing vinyl music records. Now, if you don't have an MP3 player, you're nearly ancient history. And between LPs and MP3s can be found several other dead or near-dead technologies -- reel-to-reel, 8-tracks, audiocassettes, and CDs -- all of which are relatively recent. Sooner or later, almost every technology dies, although I admit it's hard to imagine toilet paper going away anytime soon. But the life cycles of information technologies seem to be getting shorter, even though they were not long to begin with. So here's my best guess at a few technologies that I think are dead, dying, or DOA. SGML Structured Generalized Markup Language (SGML) was a good idea with a bad implementation. The basic idea is great -- a mechanism by which people can mark text with structural and semantic meaning, which provides a foundation for all kinds of sophisticated processing. For example, searches could be limited to parts of the text, or a table of contents could be extracted from the full-length work. But what you had to do to use it was as painful as pulling teeth with pliers. A decade after SGML became an International Standards Organization-approved standard in 1985, there were only about three communities of adopters: defense contractors (who were forced to by government order), linguists, and librarians. It did, however, give birth in 1998 to XML, which is much simpler to use and made for the web, and by so doing sealed SGML's fate. SGML died during childbirth. RDF The codification of the Resource Description Framework (RDF) in 1999 was eagerly awaited by those interested in describing electronic resources. Targeted to solve the problem of encoding metadata for digital objects using XML so that software could retrieve, parse, and index this information, it seemed like the weapon that would slay the jumbled mess that the web had become. One possible use for RDF was as a method to embed cataloging information in web sites, which could then be retrieved by RDF-aware robots. Other uses include coding rating information, providing content maps for web sites, and classifying digital library content independent of a library catalog system. The weapon turned out to be a space-age laser. It could slay the monster if you could just understand it well enough to use it. Instead of holding to the rule of simplicity that is a hallmark of XML, as I hoped some two years ago (see "21st-Century Cataloging," LJ 4/15/98, p. 30ff.), a group of experts in database design and information retrieval (as part of the World Wide Web Consortium's standards process) decided to build a structure based on directed labeled graphs. If you don't understand the last three words of the previous sentence, neither will you understand RDF. Unfortunately, this will kill it dead. If no one can understand how to properly use it, or if different individuals encode the same information differently (something that is already happening, even among RDF aficionados), then it will never fill the role it was designed to play. In the end, this was much too important an effort to be left to experts. Device-dependent e-books E-books that require a particular device to read them are only now hitting the market, which means I'm marking them dead on arrival. The Rocket eBook, Softbook, and other book display devices have been touted as print book replacements because of their increased functionality over ink on paper and their capacity to store many titles. But these devices are pricey ($200 and up) and unlikely to fall much lower soon, due to the need to offer the latest in liquid crystal display design. Meanwhile, Microsoft has entered the fray with software that makes virtually any Windows computer, laptop, or palm-sized device an e-book reader. The Glassbook Reader is a similar solution, running on any Windows computer and soon any Macintosh as well. Let's see: spend $200 for a device that I can use only for e-books, or just use the portable computer I already have? Client-side Java When Java came on the scene a few years ago, it was hailed as the perfect solution for the problem of having to write separate versions of software for each operating system (Windows, Mac, etc.). "Write once, run anywhere" was the claim. It would have been more than a claim if multiple versions of Java did not crop up. Also, most developers writing Java programs expected users to download their applications ("applets") and run them locally. It turned out that this process could be deadly slow and would frequently crash the user's web browser. Now the latest thing is to write "servlets" that run on servers instead of an individual user's computer; this strategy is much more successful. Technology slayers Technologies can be killed off by a variety of causes, but here are a few of the most important: Abrasive complexity -- A technology that has complexity that cannot be ignored is an open invitation to find some other solution to your problem. Both SGML and RDF suffer from this. Market share -- Better technologies have time and again gone down to defeat in the face of a poorer technology that was better marketed and distributed. In a consumerist world, it isn't enough to have a better mousetrap, you must also market and distribute it well. Device-dependent e-books may be an example, facing Microsoft or Glassbook. Competition -- A better technology solving the same problem: see XML. Inefficiency -- You may not think that a technology that requires more time or money than it saves would even get to market. If you believe that, you should watch more TV "infomercials." Java as a whole does not fit this bill, but client-side Java does. The dead and the undead I'm not the only one obsessed with technology death. Karen Schneider, in a recent American Libraries column titled "1,001 Uses for a Dead Gopher" (4/00, p. 78) covered dead technologies, technologies that wouldn't die, and some that have even come back from the dead (if you thought you were through with typewriter correction fluid, think again). The Library and Information Technology Association Top Tech Trends identified in January 1999 by ten LITA technology experts includes the admonition, "Don't run aground on submerging technologies!" There isn't much advice on the web site for how to stay afloat, but stay tuned. The group gets together at every American Library Association conference and is known for being fast and loose with advice and opinion. Every year at the Computers in Libraries conference, a group of technology pundits give their opinions on dead and emerging technologies. A report on this year's version of this program shows a great diversity of what experts think is dying and what is emerging. Obsessed or not, we all have to watch out for technologies going the way of the 8-track tape, just as we need to spot those taking their place. LINK LIST Computers in Libraries 2000 http://www.txsla.org/lsl/page11.html Glassbook http://www.glassbook.com LITA Top Tech Trends http://www.lita.org/committe/ toptech/trendsmw99.htm Microsoft Reader http://www.microsoft.com/reader "1,001 Uses for a Dead Gopher" http://www.ala.org/alonline/ netlib/il400.html RDF http://www.w3.org/RDF SGML (The XML/SGML Cover Pages) http://www.oasis-open.org/cover/ sgml-xml.html "21st-Century Cataloging" http://www.libraryjournal.com/articles/ infotech/digitallibraries/ 19980415_2627.asp