[sc34wg3] Re: Public Interest and ISO WAS: [topicmapmail] <mergeMap> questions

Steven R. Newcomb sc34wg3@isotopicmaps.org
Wed, 24 Oct 2001 12:40:02 -0500

[Kal Ahmed:]

> I'm making the point (though obviously not clearly
> enough) that topic maps will not succeed or fail
> because it is "correct" as determined by ISO,
> TopicMaps.Org or anyone else for that matter. It will
> succeed if and only if the paying public decide that
> there is value in it and invest accordingly.

> If the success of topic maps is of paramount
> importance,

Here's that "public interest" problem again: Is the
"success of Topic Maps" the goal of all the work we
have done, or were Topic Maps invented to serve some
other goal?  I've always thought so.  I've never
thought that Topic Maps were some kind of end in
themselves, and I was there at the very beginning.  I
remember the reasons why the Topic Maps paradigm was
conceived, and the reasons had nothing to do with the
success of the brand name, "Topic Maps", or with the
success of any document or product that bears that
brand name.  It had to do with improving the
productivity of human beings, by making existing
knowledge more easily findable -- especially knowledge
of where to find the knowledge you're looking for.

> then the people we should be listening to are the
> users. Are topic maps "broken" because they cannot
> represent multiple equivalent assertions with a
> single Association "object", but instead have a model
> in which you end up with multiple equivalent
> assertions with a single scope each ? No, not unless
> the user community says they are ...[snip]... [and]
> there really isn't [a user community] yet.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but you seem to be arguing
that we should create a user community around something
we know to be broken, and wait for them to wake up and
realize it before we fix it.  Did I get that right?

Is "the creation of a user community" the *primary*
goal of all our efforts, here?  I hope not.  I hope the
*primary* goal is to enhance the productivity of our
user community, regardless of the size of that
community.  If we succeed in that, we'll have the
largest possible user community -- but that's just a
side effect of doing the right thing for our users.
Creating a large user community has never been the
*purpose* of all this effort.  It's a mark of success,
but it does not constitute success.

> Here is my core point coming round again.

> I believe that more than anything, topic maps need a
> period of stability to gain traction. Only when we
> have real-life experience of topic map applications
> and projects will we be able to say what parts of the
> specification are broken. Tinkering with the model
> like this, at this stage will at best set us back at
> least 12 months. At worst, we will see vendor
> interest drop off (why try to implement support for a
> moving target) and topic maps fail.

You seem to be saying that the interests of vendors are
better served if the further development of the
concepts that presumably serve as the basis of a
standard are kept secret, so that the standard can
remain unchanged.

It's discouraging that so many bright, well-intentioned
people, like yourself, Kal, seem so intent on
preventing the topic maps paradigm from being
maintained in working condition.  Your proposal to
allow topic map processing to be whatever someone
interactively decides it should be, from time to time,
is tantamount to saying, "The meaning of a topic map is
ambiguous," which, in turn, is tantamount to saying,
"If you want to interchange information reliably, don't
use a topic map to encode it."  What, then, is the
point of the standard?

Some people in our community seem to be thinking that
the real point of the standard is the combination of
ISO's imprimatur with the brand name, "Topic Maps",
and that it doesn't matter what the brand name actually

I would like to point out that there are many customers
who don't give a damn whether the paradigm is standard,
what the brand name is, or whether the way it works is
known to the public or is kept secret.  They just want
it to work.  It would be competitively advantageous for
each of us to keep all our discoveries of the problems
and their solutions secret, and just let the rest of
the topic maps community, and all of its various
projects, go off in all directions.

Even if that scenario makes the vendors happy, it makes
me very unhappy.  It's self-defeating for all of us.
Logically, it should *not* make the vendors happy.  It
should only make the vendor with the deepest pockets
happy, because in the absence of a central, shared
vision of the ultimate purpose of the standard, and
*rigid adherence to that central shared vision and
purpose, come what may*, there is no basis for a level
playing field on which vendors, both small and large,
can compete with one another.

If we believe it's bad to fix the standard when we
discover that it lacks something necessary for
effective information interchange and information value
preservation/exploitability, then the public interest
will suffer, and the central claim of the topic maps
paradigm becomes a lie.  Ultimately, the public will
wake up and discover that its topic map assets really
*aren't* consistently and reliably mergable with other
topic map assets, and their topic maps really *aren't*
protected from loss of value due to dependency on the
technologies and methodologies espoused by particular

I feel sorry for vendors who believe that they can
exempt themselves from the necessity of adapting their
products to a changing technical and business
environment simply by pointing at the imperfect
language of an imperfect standard, written by imperfect
human beings, and saying, very loudly, "The standard
doesn't say what do to about this, so whatever we have
decided to do about it conforms to the standard, by
definition."  That may be true, but it's a meaningless
claim.  It begs the question, why would anybody buy
their technology?  Certainly not on the basis of the
technology's conformance to a powerful, well-maintained
standard that actually serves the customer's interests.

I also feel sorry for the people who, like you and me,
have spent years of their lives working to make a
meaningful contribution to society by voluntarily
creating and maintaining a publicly-available paradigm
and related public standards in working condition, when
system vendors take the attitude that the "success" of
the standard has nothing to do with whether or not it
actually works as advertised.

At a time when worldwide terrorism has created a
situation in which effective information management is
essential to the maintenance of an "open" civilization
in working condition, it's a very bad idea to try to
slow our progress toward a scenario in which ordinary
civilians can integrate their knowledge efficiently and
reliably.  We need to make the advantages of "openness"
as exploitable as possible, and as quickly as possible.
Yes, that means being adaptable, and adaptation is
always painful and expensive.  The expense and pain of
adaptation is better than the alternative.


Steven R. Newcomb, Consultant

voice: +1 972 359 8160
fax:   +1 972 359 0270

1527 Northaven Drive
Allen, Texas 75002-1648 USA