Microformats

Stuff about microformats seem to be popping up all over the place at the moment. I first came across them in a post by Simon Dickson.

The latest piece appeared on the Read/WriteWeb blog, which in turn introduced me to a great series of posts by a Mozilla developer by the name of Alex Faaborg, in which he moots the notion that microformats might be an integral part of FireFox 3.

So what are microformats? Well, it’s all a part of the so-called ‘semantic web‘ – embedding the documents that make up the web with information that will allow computers to find stuff quicker and better. Here’s Wikipedia’s example:

For example, a computer might be instructed to list the prices of flat screen HDTVs larger than 40 inches with 1080p resolution at shops in the nearest town that are open until 8pm on Tuesday evenings. To do this today requires search engines that are individually tailored to every website being searched. A semantic web would provide a single standard for all websites to publish the relevant information.

Microformats, then are a way of embedding this metadata into html pages, or, in Faaborg’s words,

adding semantics to markup to take it from being machine readable to being machine understandable.

Sounds useful. But there’s more:

Much in the same way that operating systems currently associate particular file types with specific applications, future Web browsers are likely going to associate semantically marked up data you encounter on the Web with specific applications, either on your system or online. This means the contact information you see on a Web site will be associated with your favorite contacts application, events will be associated with your favorite calendar application, locations will be associated with your favorite mapping application, phone numbers will be associated with your favorite VOIP application, etc.

If FireFox could understand all this stuff – and if the microformats are being used – then all sorts of things are possible, allowing all your data to be tied to the services you use, and not shoe-horning you into using a suite of web apps because they all link up nicely. You can use Gmail for your email, Zoho for your word processing and Skype for your calls, and it will all be handled for you automatically.

Here’s a graphic example of how it looks, courtesy of Mozilla:

There’s a FireFox extension out there now for handling metadata, called Operator, so you can get in on the action straight away. Check out the microformats website for more information on what can be done right now with them. But the real benefits of this technology will come in the future, when all the information scattered across the web can be brought to order.

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