Microformats are a softer approach to adding metadata, using standard HTML but with conventions that identify certain types of content, such as name and address details (hCard), events (hCalendar), or even CVs (hResume). If you have web pages that include content of this type, you can usually mark it up according to the microformat specification without damaging the appearance of the page. The benefit is greater searchability; in fact, you could think of it as a kind of search engine optimization.
A good example is hReview, a draft specification for reviews of anything from products to events or places. If I'm considering a purchase, I often type in a search for "product x review", and then find myself sifting through lots of useless results, because all the ecommerce and affiliate sites know we do that kind of search, and pretend to have reviews when really they do not. If all the sites used hReview I could do more precise searches, perhaps specifying "only reviews in the last 12 months", and sorting by rating, and the search engine could structure the results nicely so I can see at a glance the author's name and an extract from the review itself.
Simple standards like this can have a huge impact. The whole blogging revolution was driven by RSS, which itself is a kind of microformat for news.
The snag is, they have to be widely adopted to be useful. I first wrote about microformats in 2006, but despite my enthusiasm they have had little impact to date. That may be about to change. On Tuesday May 12th the mighty Google announced a new feature called Rich Snippets, which means it will be exposing microformat metadata in its search results, along with another more generic type of metadata called RDFa.
It all sounded familiar to me, as the previous weekend I attended Yahoo Hack Day in London, and heard about its Search Monkey project which also uses microformats and RDFa. Yahoo was there first; but it is Google that has the power to shake up the web.
Should you care about microformats? If Google is serious, then it will have a wide impact. Business names and locations should be marked up with hCard, for example. Anyone designing an Ecommerce site with user reviews should be looking at hReview. Although the list of microformats Google is taking note of is small at the moment, if it catches on that list will inevitably grow.
The message that Google is giving an advantage to sites that use microformats and RDFa will be heard loud and clear by the SEO community, and given the commercial importance of effective search ranking this could grow quickly.
Then again, I may be over-optimistic now (and yes, I do think it is a good idea) as I was in 2006. Watch this space.
The Silverlight 3 wish list is also illuminating. You soon get a feel for what developers are most frustrated about, such as: no printing support, no easy way to save documents to the user's hard drive, ugly fonts, no clipboard support, no access to devices like web cams and microphones, and no support for WSHttpBinding which adds transactions and reliable messaging to web services.
Only a few of these things are fixed in the Silverlight 3.0 beta. There is a file save dialog, and text rendering is improved though Microsoft is a long way behind Adobe Flash in this respect.
That said, Silverlight 3 does offer substantial improvements for business applications. For example, in Silverlight 2.0 you have to handle client-side validation manually, whereas Silverlight 3.0 adds validation support similar to what is in ASP.NET. There is also a new server-side piece called .NET RIA Services, which wraps key areas like authentication and transactions. Although Silverlight cannot do real transactions, .NET RIA Services introduces changesets, which let you bundle a set of database updates into a single web service call. You can also include arbitrary custom operations, such as approving a purchase order. On the server side, where you do have transaction support, this is processed and can succeed or fail as an entire unit.
Despite the snags, there is a lot to like in Silverlight. As a GUI framework it works really well, and it is good to know that special effects and transitions are available are available if you need them. Microsoft appears to have executed well on the challenge of creating a smaller, cross-platform build of the .NET Framework, which is really Silverlight's key advantage.
Another plus is the ability to work in Visual Studio with the server and client projects side by side, integrated for debugging. You can set a breakpoint in the Silverlight client, and another in the ASP.NET web service implementation, and it just works.
Presuming that Microsoft's continues its rapid pace of Silverlight development, my guess it that it will evolve into an excellent client for .NET applications, since this is what the community is demanding. As yet though, Silverlight has made little impact on the wider world of web design, which remains dominated by Flash, and it is hard to see that changing.