Seeking new technologies to leverage a couple months ago, I had an opportunity to review microformats as a way of making content more portable on a site project.
Content + microformats = crazy delicious
It's easy to find developers and markup standardistas lauding microformats as the next great thing, and as a currently-implementable stepping stone to the semantic web. That being the case, I'll say that the possibilities microformats provide for easing data export, streamlining content updating, and easing data collection burdens for users are wonderful.
I only see one cloud trying to darken microformats' day... browser support.
Despite how cheaply (in the 37signals sense) developers familiar with hCard can encode contact info, I've found it difficult to recommend to many customers that they make significant use microformats on their web sites due to the low payoff compared to the cost.
Microformats are wonderful (remember the crazy delicious comment?), but for a number of customers, this technology shoots wide of their target audiences. Personally, I get stoked when I see Tails' microformat icon appear in my status bar. But the Tails icon is a great representation of the problem: I'm getting excited over a Firefox extension's behavior, not a regular browser behavior.
I'm an outlier.
Most of the folks using my recent customers' sites haven't heard of microformats, and forget about Tails or any other Firefox extensions. Most of them know Firefox as "that browser that's trying to take on IE." The more tech savvy among them will have heard that Bill Gates said something about "we need microformats," but won't necessarily know what that means. (To be honest, since that's all I've seen from Microsoft about microformats, I'm not entirely sure what it means myself. Can we look forward to microformat support in future versions if IE, are we doomed to another "embrace and extend," or is it just talk?)
Despite my love for them, I don't believe microformats will influence the experiences of "ordinary" users (many of our customers' customers) until microformat detection and data export are built into IE and cleanly import into Outlook and similar applications. (I want to see the same functions built into Firefox, Safari, Opera, Konqueror, and all their related browsers and all the various email clients, but until "alternative" browser use ceases to be alternative, it's all about getting Microsoft to adopt.)
A less oft quoted part of Gates' proclamation on microformats is that we need "to get people to agree on them." My read: Until we have agreement on microformats, browser makers won't be able to read them out of the box, so don't expect us to deliver this innovation to the masses anytime soon.
Fortunately, I think much of the work on standardizing microformats has been done. A number of microformats are established and well documented. Developers are using these documented formats on their sites, and enterprising companies are providing microformat based searching. Google's Usage Rights feature and Yahoo's Creative Commons search checks rel-license links for specific flavors of Creative Commons licenses, and Technorati provides a microformat search covering contacts, events, and reviews marked with the relevant (hCard, hCalendar, hReview) microformats.
But even with Google and Technorati showing what cool things are possible with microformats, we will have to drive adoption.
Delivering the dream
If the web's awash in well formed, standards compliant microformat content, the browser makers won't be able to ignore it, and they won't be able to claim that the target's moving too much to justify the development costs to support microformats.
What about the client problem, you ask?
We have a pretty good sense which clients won't really gain anything from microformats. We have a similarly solid sense of which clients would benefit and would be interested in what microformats can do for them given the proper introduction.
We also know how to make microformat adoption as cheap as possible on our end. The lower the cost for entry, the easier it will be to sell clients on it or just include it as a value add.
And, just a guess, I'm thinking that most of us have one site or another that's ours to command, maybe even a few family and friends' sites that are ripe for a quick implementation.
Old time religionin'
And there's always spreading the word with those we work and play around. Share the gospel of microformat goodness. As people see how microformats will help them kick ass, ((In wonderful Kathy Sierra "help your users kick ass" ways)) they'll start looking for microformat support. Just ask Derek and Will, once you've got an audience on your side, you're golden. The more people that see what the web could be, the more there will be pushing for it to happen.
As the excuses fall away and user demand mounts, it will be too expensive for browser makers not to support microformats. And we'll have successfully taken over the world.