It’s just data

Targeting Non-Elite Programmers

James Clark: I see the real pain-point for distributed computing at the moment as not the messaging framework but the handling of the payload ... This pain is experienced most sharply at the moment in the SOAP world, because the big commercial players have made a serious investment in trying to produce tools that work for the average developer. But I believe the REST world has basically the same problem: it’s not really feeling the pain at the moment because REST solutions are mostly created by relatively elite developers who are comfortable dealing with XML directly.

I’m convinced that few in the SOAP world — not exactly a category I would put James into — have an appreciation for what suitable for average, relatively low-skill programmers really means.  Conspicuously absent from James’ post is any mention of either urlencoding or XPath.

While James quickly dismisses JSON and YAML, he omits entirely another mechanism commonly used to encode request parameters: application/x-www-form-urlencoded.  This mechanism is quite suitable for expressing a small number of parameters.  James’ first TEDI example involves two strings and two integers.  If the request is safe and the length of the strings are not too unwieldy, requests involving urlencoding can be made via HTTP GET, and thereby potentially accrue benefits such as cacheability and bookmarkability.  Otherwise, the request can be made with HTTP POST, opening up the potential for file uploads.

James argues that XML has to be the mainstay, due to the extraordinary breadth of adoption; by this measure, urlencoding is certainly a contender.

Responses are a different beast entirely.  Responses tend to considerably larger and considerably more deeply nested.  For these reasons, an approach more general than urlencoding is warranted; but this does not necessarily imply XML.  XML is but one format that fits in the general category of “data formats that have the potential of being expressed as an DOM”.  Such a category would also include HTML documents.

Again, in terms of adoption, HTML certainly ranks up there.

Lets take a look at a real use case.  Visit James’ post using a modern browser, and you will see an icon that indicates that you can subscribe to his posts.  The request made to fetch his page consists solely of the name of the endpoint and zero parameters; and subsequent subscription polls likewise only require a URI and zero parameters.  Requests with zero parameters are a common use case in REST based systems.

The page containing James’ post is not well formed XML, but can be rendered into a DOM nevertheless.  Once that is accomplished, retrieving the subscription information is a simple matter of traversal, and this can be expressed as an XPath expression:

/xhtml:html/xhtml:head/xhtml:link[@rel='application/atom+xml' or @rel='application/rss+xml']/@href

Programmers using E4X or SimpleXML have an equivalent or better mechanism to express such data mining operations.  Ways that are accessible to even “average, relatively low-skill programmers”.  But no matter how this traversal is done, I know of no browser which relies on a formal XML schema in order to place a subscription icon in your window.

Similar observations can be made for feeds.  RSS does not have a formal grammar.  While Atom has a non-normative grammar, I’m unaware of anyone using it to assist with parsing activities.

Now, lets take a look at a recent, relevant, and very concrete example: Google Maps support for GeoRSS.  In order to deal with feeds produced by “average, relatively low-skill programmers” Google must deal with non well formed feeds, multiple incompatible formats (+ Atom, optionally including the declining but not quite gone Atom 0.3 variant), multiple ways to express GeoRSS data, and even deal with applications which don’t follow these specs either.  (Note: both slashgeo and flickr now produce valid GeoRSS feeds!  Thanks guys!)

In fact, such feed-based applications are positively flourishing.

Would an alternate mechanism for expressing schemas help this situation?  My assessment: not so much.  Anybody care to do the work to express a schema for the set of all possible permutations of GeoRSS augmented feeds?

I suggest that yet another grammar for expressing concepts related to validation would not nearly be as helpful as a collection of tools, tips, and techniques that deal with topics such as normalization.