:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

Bringing Out the Dead (Technologies)


   Some of us are old enough to remember owning and playing vinyl music
   records. Now, if you don't have an MP3 player, you're nearly ancient
   history. And between LPs and MP3s can be found several other dead or
   near-dead technologies -- reel-to-reel, 8-tracks, audiocassettes, and
   CDs -- all of which are relatively recent.

   Sooner or later, almost every technology dies, although I admit it's
   hard to imagine toilet paper going away anytime soon. But the life
   cycles of information technologies seem to be getting shorter, even
   though they were not long to begin with. So here's my best guess at a
   few technologies that I think are dead, dying, or DOA.

   Structured Generalized Markup Language (SGML) was a good idea with a
   bad implementation. The basic idea is great -- a mechanism by which
   people can mark text with structural and semantic meaning, which
   provides a foundation for all kinds of sophisticated processing. For
   example, searches could be limited to parts of the text, or a table of
   contents could be extracted from the full-length work.

   But what you had to do to use it was as painful as pulling teeth with
   pliers. A decade after SGML became an International Standards
   Organization-approved standard in 1985, there were only about three
   communities of adopters: defense contractors (who were forced to by
   government order), linguists, and librarians. It did, however, give
   birth in 1998 to XML, which is much simpler to use and made for the
   web, and by so doing sealed SGML's fate. SGML died during childbirth.

   The codification of the Resource Description Framework (RDF) in 1999
   was eagerly awaited by those interested in describing electronic
   resources. Targeted to solve the problem of encoding metadata for
   digital objects using XML so that software could retrieve, parse, and
   index this information, it seemed like the weapon that would slay the
   jumbled mess that the web had become.

   One possible use for RDF was as a method to embed cataloging
   information in web sites, which could then be retrieved by RDF-aware
   robots. Other uses include coding rating information, providing content
   maps for web sites, and classifying digital library content independent
   of a library catalog system.

   The weapon turned out to be a space-age laser. It could slay the
   monster if you could just understand it well enough to use it. Instead
   of holding to the rule of simplicity that is a hallmark of XML, as I
   hoped some two years ago (see "21st-Century Cataloging," LJ 4/15/98, p.
   30ff.), a group of experts in database design and information retrieval
   (as part of the World Wide Web Consortium's standards process) decided
   to build a structure based on directed labeled graphs. If you don't
   understand the last three words of the previous sentence, neither will
   you understand RDF.

   Unfortunately, this will kill it dead. If no one can understand how to
   properly use it, or if different individuals encode the same
   information differently (something that is already happening, even
   among RDF aficionados), then it will never fill the role it was
   designed to play. In the end, this was much too important an effort to
   be left to experts.

   Device-dependent e-books
   E-books that require a particular device to read them are only now
   hitting the market, which means I'm marking them dead on arrival. The
   Rocket eBook, Softbook, and other book display devices have been touted
   as print book replacements because of their increased functionality
   over ink on paper and their capacity to store many titles.

   But these devices are pricey ($200 and up) and unlikely to fall much
   lower soon, due to the need to offer the latest in liquid crystal
   display design. Meanwhile, Microsoft has entered the fray with software
   that makes virtually any Windows computer, laptop, or palm-sized device
   an e-book reader. The Glassbook Reader is a similar solution, running
   on any Windows computer and soon any Macintosh as well. Let's see:
   spend $200 for a device that I can use only for e-books, or just use
   the portable computer I already have?

   Client-side Java
   When Java came on the scene a few years ago, it was hailed as the
   perfect solution for the problem of having to write separate versions
   of software for each operating system (Windows, Mac, etc.). "Write
   once, run anywhere" was the claim. It would have been more than a claim
   if multiple versions of Java did not crop up.

   Also, most developers writing Java programs expected users to download
   their applications ("applets") and run them locally. It turned out that
   this process could be deadly slow and would frequently crash the user's
   web browser. Now the latest thing is to write "servlets" that run on
   servers instead of an individual user's computer; this strategy is much
   more successful.

   Technology slayers
   Technologies can be killed off by a variety of causes, but here are a
   few of the most important:

   Abrasive complexity -- A technology that has complexity that cannot be
   ignored is an open invitation to find some other solution to your
   problem. Both SGML and RDF suffer from this.

   Market share -- Better technologies have time and again gone down to
   defeat in the face of a poorer technology that was better marketed and
   distributed. In a consumerist world, it isn't enough to have a better
   mousetrap, you must also market and distribute it well.
   Device-dependent e-books may be an example, facing Microsoft or

   Competition -- A better technology solving the same problem: see XML.

   Inefficiency -- You may not think that a technology that requires more
   time or money than it saves would even get to market. If you believe
   that, you should watch more TV "infomercials." Java as a whole does not
   fit this bill, but client-side Java does.

   The dead and the undead
   I'm not the only one obsessed with technology death. Karen Schneider,
   in a recent American Libraries column titled "1,001 Uses for a Dead
   Gopher" (4/00, p. 78) covered dead technologies, technologies that
   wouldn't die, and some that have even come back from the dead (if you
   thought you were through with typewriter correction fluid, think

   The Library and Information Technology Association Top Tech Trends
   identified in January 1999 by ten LITA technology experts includes the
   admonition, "Don't run aground on submerging technologies!" There isn't
   much advice on the web site for how to stay afloat, but stay tuned. The
   group gets together at every American Library Association conference
   and is known for being fast and loose with advice and opinion.

   Every year at the Computers in Libraries conference, a group of
   technology pundits give their opinions on dead and emerging
   technologies. A report on this year's version of this program shows a
   great diversity of what experts think is dying and what is emerging.

   Obsessed or not, we all have to watch out for technologies going the
   way of the 8-track tape, just as we need to spot those taking their

                                  LINK LIST

                                               Computers in Libraries 2000
                                                      LITA Top Tech Trends
                                                          Microsoft Reader
                                            "1,001 Uses for a Dead Gopher"
                                           SGML (The XML/SGML Cover Pages)
                                                 "21st-Century Cataloging"