David Orchard on humans and the Web

David wrote an article on the BEA site, that, to its credit, confronts the issue (and IMO, mistaken assumption of so many); that the Web is for humans. He writes;

It turns out that humans are pretty darned smart. We can figure out a variety of interactions such as:

    * How to enter usernames and passwords into different pages
    * When to stop waiting for a page to return and resubmit the request
    * When timed out of a site, how to reenter data and get to the right pages
    * How to enter an e-mail address in a Web form, and then switch over to the e-mail client to view the resulting e-mail message
    * What ordering (or flow) of Web pages to go through to achieve a task

Dave’s correct that humans are pretty darned smart, and also when he later suggests that machine-to-machine integration requires additional standards because of this. But he’s mistaken if he believes (and I know he does 8-) that this requires disregarding REST’s uniform interface constraint. Allow me to run through that list to demonstrate …

How to enter usernames and passwords into different pages. For the specific case of user names & passwords, the Web already has a standard for that. For the more general case of entering any data, I agree that a standard is missing. That’s why I developed RDF Forms, but something like WIDL could also be used.

When to stop waiting for a page to return and resubmit the request. I can’t imagine a scenario where you’d need a standard for this. If the system were stateless, then time is immaterial. I would expect that what is most important would be that when you do resubmit, that the expectation about invocation semantics are explicit, e.g. “once and only once”, “idempotent”, “safe”, etc… I agree that standardization is required here (though not as much as you might expect).

When timed out of a site, how to reenter data and get to the right pages. This sounds like a combination of the previous two, but I should also mention that RDF Forms uses “link metadata” (i.e. type information adorning a hyperlink, such as <PurchaseOrder rdf:about=”http://…”/>) that can be used by automata to “get to the right pages”.

How to enter an e-mail address in a Web form, and then switch over to the e-mail client to view the resulting e-mail message. Much like the first one above regarding data entry, but I’m not sure what “switch over to the e-mail client” means; surely my automata isn’t going to be using the Outlook GUI/app, it’ll be using some email client library or an HTTP proxy to an MTA.

What ordering (or flow) of Web pages to go through to achieve a task. That’s where “hypermedia as the engine of application state” comes in, as hypermedia is your application model. Link metadata is key here too; I talked about this in “Hypermedia Workflow”. But I do think some more standardization is required, specifically in the area of link metadata describing useful workflow abstractions such as rendezvous (none of the RESTful integration work I’ve done has required a workflow component other than vanilla hypermedia, so I can’t say with certainty what needs to be standardized).

Thanks to Dave for mentioning this, because it’s been such a long standing assumption that most Web services proponents would consider it unworthy of discussion.

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